Saturday, July 03, 2004

Disney: Craven, or simply venal?

When Disney ordered Miramax not to distribute Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, there were two versions of the reasons for the decision. Michael Moore's version is that Disney did it because it was afraid of angering Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who is in a position to grant tax concessions that the company is eagerly seeking. Disney's version was that they simply did not want to be associated with a partisan political film that could potentially alienate republican-leaning families that buy its products and visit its theme parks.

Few in the media commented on how tendentious Disney's reason is, even if you accept their version as accurate. For "Fahrenheit 9/11" was to be distributed by Miramax, an independent film company that was acquired by Disney in 1993. At the time there was enormous concern about Disney acquiring a studio known for pathbreaking independent cinema, but Disney assured the public that it had no intention of interfering with Miramax or toning down Miramax's films to placate the religious right.

And they were true to their word. The right fumed as Miramax made the blasphemous "Priest", the teensexploitation flick "Kids", the ultra-violent "Pulp Fiction", "Kill Bill", and dozens of other un-Disneyish films. Meanwhile Disney's subsidiary "Hollywood Records" released the far from family friendly "Insane Clown Posse" and other hardcore rap artists.

Disney wasn't concerned that any of this might be offensive to the deeply held beliefs of their customers. Explicit sex and violence? A-OK. Not a problem. No, what really put Disney into a fit of conniptions was the dread spectre of politics.

Needless to say, a corporation that censors Michael Moore but is happy to rake in the cash from an ultra-violence afficionado like Quentin Tarantino has no credibility whatsoever. But beyond this basic hypocrisy, now lies an even bigger one.

Because when I heard Disney's reasons, the first thing I thought was, well, now the bar has been set. If Disney claims that it doesn't want to be involved in distributing political films, well it better just keep to that pledge, if they're not to look like complete hypocrites. But I never imagined how quickly they'd be shown as blatantly hypocritical as this.

"America's Heart and Soul" is, by all reports, a patriotic, stirring, syrapy paen of love to the essentially wonderfullness of America in the style that Americans lap up so much. Yet it isn't a "political" film, Disney assures us. Yet Disney arranged a special screening for the "Move America Forward" foundation, a conservative thinktank that just happen to be behind an attempt to pressure cinemas into dropping "Fahrenheit 9/11" from their rosters.

Howard Kaloogian, Move America Forward foundation's chairmain, assures us that "America's Heart and Soul" is apolitical. Nonetheless he points out that you "come out with a very different feeling about America than when you leave Moore's film."

It sounds like the perfect deal for Disney. Disney can maintain a facade of innocence over suggestions that there's any political overtones in "America's Heart and Soul's" unabashed flag waving boosterism. No significance can be read in the fact that its breezy optimism and inspirational pablums just happen to come at a time when more and more Americans are questioning the direction their country is headed.

Fortunately, Disney's cravenness is hitting it in the one place that hurts it -- the bottom line. By peddling a little political influence, Disney has managed to give away what's well on the way to becoming the most profitable documentary of all time. And the publicity over Disney's little act of corporate censorship (ably aided along by a veteran media manipulator like Michael Moore, of course), and the attempted boycott by "Move America Forward", have only hyped up the documentary even further.

The irony is delicious. Not only are these people craven, but they are incompetently craven. Like some cartoon supervillain, Michael Moore only feeds off the heat they throw at him. And now it's too late to reverse course and deny him the publicity he thrives on. He's already on his 300 foot tall rampage, leaving the attack machine behind to wonder "what have we created?"

I watch Entertainment Tonight too

Budding teen queens Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen... Oh, I can't even spit it out.

I admit it: I'm an ET gossip fanboy. And so it was particularly perplexing to watch the reports that Mary Kate Olsen was in rehab for anorexia. Try as I might, I couldn't figure this out. Not because, looking at Mary Kate Olsen, I can't believe that she's anorexic. No, the problem is that Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen are identical twins. If you've seen them, you'll notice that they look exactly the same as each other. So my question is, how can one Olsen twin be anorexic and not the other one?

This report in the NY Post, suggesting that Mary Kate Olsen is actually in rehab for cocaine use, makes a hell of lot more sense.

Once again, your news media has come through to expose unproven-yet-plausible facts about the lives of our 18 year old starlets. And I'm right here to chronicle it.

"Fisking" goes mainstream?

Is it just me, or is this column from Frank Devine the most pathetically strained piece I've read on the Internet for, oh, at least the past week?

Frank Devine is carrying the torch for the "ABC is biased" brigade. But I don't think the ABC has much to worry about if this is the best he can come up with. In the spirit of Devine's "peer-review", let's "peer review" this column:

ABC: "An Islamic website proclaimed [the beheading of Paul Johnson] as a lesson to Westerners who dare venture to Saudi Arabia."

Devine: Rephrase or delete. Certainly cut "lesson" and "dare". The ABC shouldn't act as a mouthpiece for murderers.

Me: Delete item. Absurd to imply ABC is "acting as a mouthpiece for murderers", if it indeed accurately reports what website says. Experienced newsman like Devine seems unable to grasp elementary distinction between reporting what is said, and endorsing said views.

ABC: "Mr Johnson's family and friends in New Jersey are devastated. [Unidentified man]: 'They've won one thing: my hatred. I've never been a racist a day in my life but today I'm finding myself very racist'."

Devine: Delete quote. Irresponsible to imply that (1) it's okay to be racist if a friend has been murdered or (2) New Jersey people turn racist when bad things happen or (3) Johnson's murder was the act of a race of people. Highlighting statements of individuals when distraught is unfair and often misleading.

Me: Delete item. Devine's attempt to divine "implications" of selected quote itself unsupported speculation. Unlikely any sane person would form this interpretion from ABC's choice of quote. Likely ABC chose quote for its newsworthiness, as distraught people often are quoted, even in "The Australian." Once again, Devine hopelessly confused between using a quote, and endorsing what quote says.

ABC: "Russian President has revealed new intelligence claiming that Saddam Hussein's regime was planning to strike the United States ... For President George Bush the revelation may come as a relief."

Devine: Delete second sentence. Unsupported, not to say air-head, speculation

Me: Delete item. Speculation not unsupported, in light of recent political pressure on Bush to demonstrate Saddam's links to terrorists intent on striking the United States. Devine appears to live on Mars.

ABC: Just hours after the Russian President's statements [Bush] made a campaign stop to again tell troops Saddam was a threat."

Delete "campaign". The Democratic Party hasn't even chosen its nominee yet. Anyway, commanders-in-chief have other reasons to visit troops than to canvass their votes. Replace "was a threat" with "had been a threat". Saddam is in prison.

Me: Delete item. Devine appears to believe that all those stops Bush is making to tout his Health Plan, Economic Plan, Security Plan etc., not to mention all the attack ads on Kerry that he's currently airing, are not part of an election campaign. Displays fundamental ignorance of US campaign cycle: while it's true that the Democratic party hasn't formally nominated its candidate yet, Kerry has won the "primaries" stage of his campaign -- note the word -- which is why he's referred to in the American press as the "Presumptive Democratic Nominee."

"Was a threat" in appropriate tense to refer to someone who "was a threat"; "had been a threat" also acceptable.

ABC: "[Quoting President Bush]: 'This is a regime that sheltered terrorist groups. This is a regime that hated America. And so we saw a threat and it was a real threat.' That claim is being disputed by the commission into the September 11 attacks."

Devine: Delete last sentence. The commission disputes nothing in this Bush statement. An ABC concoction. Sack scriptwriter and segment producer

Me: Rephrase or delete. 9/11 commission disputed key pre-war claim that Saddam hosted Al-Qaeda terrorist training camp, or co-operated with Al-Qaeda terrorists. Possible to convict ABC of oversimplification here; but this is hardly a unique event in TV news.

ABC: "Analysts believe Putin was trying to help the American president [with his statement that Russian intelligence showed Saddam planned to attack the US], hoping one day the favour might be returned."

Devine: Amazing speculation! Where is there an "analyst" so unhinged as to make it? If possible, shoot scriptwriter and segment producer while attempting to escape.

Me: Delete item. Devine is now quibbling about source selection. While citing speculation as "analysts believe" may be a lazy way to do journalism, this practice is hardly unique to the ABC. Speculation not "amazing": seems straightforward that if Putin is putting forward information that helps the US president, his intention is to help him.

ABC: "[Quoting Opposition spokesman Kevin Rudd]: 'John Howard wants to run a cheap and nasty election campaign based exclusively on national security. Well, this is his national diversion strategy.' But it's a campaign the Government won't be easily diverted from."

Devine: Delete news-reader's ditzy comment. What won't the Government be diverted from? Cheapness and nastiness? Or will it refuse to be diverted from diversion?

Me: Delete item. Perfectly clear from context that ABC is referring to the coalition not be diverted from campaigning on "national security."

"A year ago, Hutchison was eager for media coverage of its third generation [mobile telephone launch]. Today it was camera shy. Under fire for [emissions from] its facility in Camberwell it would only say it was not in a residential area and the breaches were on minor technicalities."

Devine: Delete first two sentences. Why shouldn't a company (or individual) choose when to pose for ABC cameras? Delete "only" from third sentence. It's a substantial statement.

Me: Delete item. While not purely neutral, it is acceptable for the media to emphasise a refusal to talk to the media. "Only" can reasonably be interpreted as meaning those were the only things the company said, not that these are insignificant statements.

And so on and so on and so on. Until you're sick of it, assuming you weren't already sick of it in paragraph one.

I've always thought the best refutation of this sort of idiotic, tendentious blog style "journalism" was Anil Dash's wonderful "fisking" of America's "Declaration of Independence" a while back. Only through satire can the essential idiocy of attack commentary be brought home.

A decline in values?

While deeply ashamed to admit I read Hollywood gossip sites, I think there's something telling about this NY Post item on sex worker Dessarae Bradford's insta-book "My S/M Romp with Alec Baldwin", which details a single session in 2002 involving a vibrator and a hershey bar.

The claims in the book are, of course, completely unverifiable. But think of the implications if they are true! Does this mean the sacred bond of confidentiality between sex worker and john no longer applies? The Patriot act gutted medical privacy. Is sex-worker confidentiality the last domino to fall?

(Yes, I'm experimenting with writing "trashier" items. Maybe I'll get some more hits from search engines.)

Sunday, June 27, 2004

One of the few readable righties in the world, PJ O'Rourke, wonders why trying to persuade people is out of style:

I tried watching The O'Reilly Factor. I tried watching Hannity shout about Colmes. I tried listening to conservative talk radio. But my frustration at concurrence would build, mounting from exasperation with like-mindedness to a fury of accord, and I'd hit the OFF button.

PJ O'Rourke finds that the overall tone of conservative talk radio is "less trial of Socrates than Johnnie Cochran summation to the O.J. jury."

It's something I've often wondered about myself. In Australia, the best window on the American right wing echo chamber is Fox News Channel. You have to wonder: what is the point of Fox News? It takes only a very short amount of watching to figure out that all it does is shill for the Republican party and the conservative movement. And it's so odiously biased in that direction that it turns out even PJ O'Rourke can't stomach it, let alone any liberal that might be watching. Fox News is pretty much preaching to the converted. So what's the point?

I have a theory. PJ O'Rourke might think that the person Rush Limbaugh is shouting at is "basically me", but he's rather off base. O'Rourke's orthodox libertarianism makes him a fairly heterodox conservative, on the right on economic issues but way, way out there on social ones. Mr. O'Rourke might think that he is

...a little to the right of Rush Limbaugh. I'm so conservative that I approve of San Francisco City Hall marriages, adoption by same-sex couples, and New Hampshire's recently ordained Episcopal bishop.

But of course he's being cute. In anything resembling the real map of politics today, that puts him on the left with the other social progressives. Likewise, when he worries that illegal aliens might not get across the border, and saddling us with all the lawn-mowing jobs, he's making a joke that offends the profound sentiments of all the angry white men who become dittoheads and O'Reilly repeaters.

And that's Mr O'Rourke's problem. The reason he can't relate to Fox News is not because it's not trying to persuade anyone. It is; but it's not designed to persuade liberals. It's actually designed to make conservatives more extreme conservatives, while ensuring that they remain loyal Republican voters. When I watch Fox News, I don't feel squeamish because I'm being convinced. I feel squeamish because I know there's some mark out there who does self-identify as conservative is watching, and slowly having his brain roasted by a steady diet of moronic, one-sided, shrill, obnoxious propoganda parroted by an endless legion of identical ken and barbie doll presenters, all while being assured, in almost Orwellian fashion, that Fox News is the news channel that's "Fair and Balanced." It's bad for me and it's bad for him.

The reason why O'Rourke finds all this so annoying is that, as a liberal-turned-libertarian, he has a degree of independence of mind that can't survive well in the climate of the right-wing echo chamber. If nothing else, Fox News is a remarkable tool for having everyone parrot the same talking points. The Pravda like effect this has on the discourse is of course inimicable to the humour or provocative prose of a Mr O'Rourke. Funny and "on-message" don't mix.

Ever fair and balanced himself, O'Rourke notes the opposing trend: books like Michael Moore's "Stupid White Men" and Al Franken's "Lies and the Lying Liars who tell them." Actually, all he cites of the latter is the chapter headings. So, in order to make my own blog entry fair and balanced, I must disclose that, despite my praising O'Rourke today, I have in the past referred to O'Rourke as "irritatingly smug" and "facile", and reviewing Mr Franken's rather enjoyable book based on chapter headings is about as smug and facile as he gets. However, that's really the point. I imagine Franken's book would also seem "smug and facile" to a fair-minded conservative, and yet he'd have to admit it's also uproariously funny in parts. That's why Franken and O'Rourke are readable. And why Ann Coulter spewing vituperative rhetoric in every direction is not. The most defining characteristic of Ann Coulter is an utterly monomaniacal, completely humorless sense of despisement and fury. This isn't fun. However I will acknowledge that it might be sexy to particular kind of extreme masochist -- and it's surely no coincidence that Ann Coulter is depicted, on her latest book, in dominatrix-style black leather skirt and top.

No wonder O'Rourke can't stomach her, or the movement she's a part of. But I should note that Mr O'Rourke himself has, in his books, sometimes approached the obnoxiously one-sided rhetoric his current column decries. I hope this means he's realised the error of his ways. So here's the deal: Mr O'Rourke can take his own lesson and write a book embracing the "civility" conservatives so frequently pretend to be concerned about vanishing from politics, and I promise to buy it. Maybe even allow myself to be persuaded by it. That sounds like a fair deal to me.