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By James Hirsen with NewsMax.com
Random HouseJames Hirsen with NewsMax.com
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Chapter 1: Who cares what celebrities think?
I was often asked that question after I wrote my previous book, Tales from the Left Coast, which chronicled Hollywood's political activity. During a discussion on MSNBC's Scarborough Country, for example, UCLA film professor Richard Walter maintained that celebrities are influential in "the movies that they make, not the press conferences that they hold." He said, "Nobody cares a lot about what Jessica Lange thinks politically or intellectually. Do you? Do I? Why should it matter? They don't."
Professor Walter was sounding a familiar refrain, but a somewhat delusional one, as I've discovered in my years of covering the ins and outs of Hollywood. At the very least it's an attempt to duck a substantive debate. When you hear someone remark, Who cares what entertainers say?, you can pretty much bet that person is trying to avoid a serious look at the kinds of messages that are coming to us from the entertainment community.
This kind of disregard creates a problem, though, because like it or not, celebrities do matter. They influence all of us, often in powerful ways.
USA Today addressed this issue in an article entitled "When Stars Speak, Do We Listen?" At a time when actors like Martin Sheen, Anjelica Huston, and James Cromwell were leading high-profile protests against the war in Iraq, the newspaper commissioned a survey to determine whether celebrities "really have any influence" over the public, and over politicians and policy. At first glance, the poll seemed to lend some support to Professor Walter's position that America doesn't listen to actors on political issues: 87 percent of those surveyed responded that no celebrity could cause them to change their position on the war. Only about a third "felt celebrities were 'somewhat' effective in influencing the views of the president and other elected officials."
Polls like this have a built-in defect, though. Paul Waldman, coauthor of the book The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories That Shape the Political World, told USA Today that people are hesitant to admit they are influenced by anybody, much less a celebrity. Most folks, Waldman noted, "like to believe 'I made up my mind myself.' "
The news media are certainly affording stars plenty of opportunities to voice their opinions on the issues of the day. Why? Because, as Waldman pointed out, the simple fact is that some "starstruck" news organizations are "more likely to agree to an interview with Jessica Lange on the topic of Iraq than some guy from the Council on Foreign Relations." The more visibility these celebrities have, the more likely they are to hijack the debate.
Think about it: if the public weren't influenced by famous names and faces, then celebrities wouldn't be getting paid big bucks to hawk products and services, and celebrity endorsements wouldn't be so actively pursued by activist groups, charitable organizations, and politicians.
Actually, the public is listening to celebrity spouters more intently than ever. In fact, when we talk about the entertainment community's extensive influence, we're not just referring to famous actors who jabber on issues. Sure, Sean Penn, Martin Sheen, Michael Moore, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Barbra Streisand, Alec Baldwin, and all the other celebs who hop to the podium to lecture the country on their political views are a big part of the story. But they're by no means the whole story. In Tales from the Left Coast I focused on those celebs and their politicking, but as I examined the situation further I realized how much more there is to the psyche-swaying picture.
For starters, Professor Walter was partly right when he said that actors are most influential in "the movies that they make." Inadvertently, he was acknowledging something that lots of left-leaners try to deny: Movies, TV shows, music, and other entertainment products don't merely amuse us or divert us from reality; often they convey messages about political, social, and cultural issues. And since Tinseltown remains such a liberal bastion, as we witnessed during the last presidential election with the Dem fund-raising machine, those messages usually come with a distinct lefty twist.
Hollywood and its companion products are massaging many of our behaviors, attitudes, and ideas, but Left Coasters tend to admit that only when it suits their PC purposes. As film critic Michael Medved points out, studio heads like to boast that they do good by, say, showing a character in an action movie snap on a seat belt before a high-speed chase, or including "safe sex" scenes that prominently feature condoms. But those kinds of shots might account for a few seconds in a two-hour movie. Don't audiences also receive messages about behavior from other parts of the film--like the violent chase and shootout that follow the buckle-up, or the graphic sex scene that inevitably accompanies the condom wrapper? No way, say Hollywood's defenders.
Tinseltowners often fall back on the shopworn pretext "It's only a movie." But aside from the logical inconsistency of that position, folks instinctively know that films and TV shows do matter when it comes to shaping opinions, values, and behavior. And they matter a bundle. In fact, entertainment just happens to be one of the weakest portals of entry for us humans.
Hollywood influence is becoming particularly significant now that, as a people, we seem to be placing a higher and higher value on our entertainment needs and wishes. We Americans have quite a bit of leisure time on our hands. And we want to fill that time with gobs of entertainment. Whether it's eating at a restaurant, shopping at a mall, throwing darts in a bar, or driving in a car, we crave diversion, excitement, and just plain old fun. Our obsession with amusement has created a world in which, as Joel Siegel of ABC's Good Morning America tells me, "entertainment is unavoidable."
Here we're talking about what's usually called pure entertainment. In recent years, though, something else has emerged that has even more clout over the way we see the world. It used to be that people got their news from their daily local Times or nightly network broadcast. But increasingly folks are getting their scoops and forming their opinions the entertainment way.
If you look closely you'll notice that Hollywood has spilled over into the news business. Not content with merely playing roles, Tinseltowners now intrude on journalism's turf. Through things like documentaries, docudramas, and agenda-driven movies, Hollywood can stretch the truth and bend the mind. Most conspicuously, filmmaker Michael Moore and others have redefined the documentary, corrupting the genre by presenting misleading information and outright falsehoods as fact. In Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine, and Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore presented staged events as real and fiction as fact. And he carefully left out details that might inconvenience his arguments. Despite his apparent lack of concern for the truth, in one boo-ridden instance Moore was actually given an Academy Award for Best Documentary.
Film studios and TV networks are now releasing docudramas, which can be even more slanted and distorted because they blatantly meld fantasy with reality. Another Oscar winner, director Oliver Stone, has built his career around films that purport to represent historical events but are closer to Shrek in their accuracy. Stone's film about John F. Kennedy's assassination prompted a Newsweek cover story headlined "The Twisted Truth of JFK: Why Oliver Stone's New Movie Can't Be Trusted." Stone offered a similarly skewed take on Richard Nixon. Cable TV host and news commentator Monica Crowley, whose first job out of college was working for the former president, tells me that "Oliver Stone had the script for the movie Nixon done and ready to go. He waited until Nixon died to put it into production, because he knew that Nixon would have sued him. The portrayal of Nixon was completely off the mark, not that I expected anything less--or different, I should say--from Oliver Stone. Oliver Stone's approach to history is to take his own theories, as wild and inaccurate as they may be, and fold them into actual historical facts."
Still, films can pack such a powerful punch that many people take the tall tales seriously. That's why Hollywood honchos have the influential means that they do to shape the message. If they so desire, they can put a particular spin on a topic and get people to pay mega-attention to the argument. In essence, they can circumvent the news media--and the journalistic standards that require some degree of faithfulness to the historical record--and still trumpet their political messages. Because of this, such "entertainment products" can knead and knuckle people's beliefs and do things that the Dewdrop Dispatch or the Peoria nightly news broadcast could never pull off.
At the same time, the news business itself is undergoing a Tinseltown makeover. To function as a free society, we need information delivered to us in an accurate, unadulterated, and uncensored manner. But these days our needs and wants seem to be at odds a bit, because we're looking to receive our news and analyses in fun, bite-sized morsels. The truth is that bare-bones facts can be so--I believe the word is--boring. So papers dress up communiqués with eye-pleasing charts, headlines, photos, colors, and the like. Television uses brightly lighted sets, telegenic anchors, attention-grabbing sound effects, and arresting sound bites to give pizzazz to otherwise lackluster dispatches. And news organizations produce special reports and documentaries that aim to do more than just inform us; they try to make our imaginations take flight, tickle our funny bones, or scare the pants off us in a Saturday-matinee kind of way.
Ever so slowly things have gone through an adjustment. Now News is Big Entertainment. And Entertainment is Big News.
Anyone who has perused the East or Left Coast Times, toggled through the evening alphabet broadcasts, tuned in to a cable news show only to find his or her favorite sitcom star, or switched back and forth between a beloved action hero's flick and his gubernatorial press conference knows exactly what I'm talking about. These days high-profile personalities from L.A. to Broadway appear regularly on TV and film to give their news and views. Politicians do the late-night circuit. And journalists and anchors find their own celebrity stars shooting north.
When Anderson Cooper moves from a reality show, The Mole, to grab an anchor spot on CNN; when Meredith Vieira transitions from 20/20 to The View to a syndicated version of the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire; when network news shows devote time to "reporting" about prime-time program happenings and featuring reality-show castoffs, we can pretty much see that the borderlines between news and entertainment have been zapped.
Former Nightline host Ted Koppel has noticed what's occurring. While speaking at the Hollywood Radio and Television Society's newsmaker luncheon at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, the ABC News anchor griped about news personalities being placed in non-news settings. "When we began taking our journalism more lightly, people began taking us less seriously," Koppel complained. "I have no problem whatsoever with entertainers and comedians pretending to be journalists; my problem is with journalists pretending to be entertainers."
Koppel was speaking only about the damage being done to the profession of journalism. But the fact is, this intense blending of information and entertainment fare is having a real impact on all of us. As things have progressed, we're finding it harder and harder to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and insincerity, and virtue and vice.
When we used to talk about Hollywood, we were referring to a specific SoCal locale. But Tinseltown's influence has seeped beyond its borders and now affects our whole society.
How can the entertainment community have so much influence over us? One big factor is our ongoing love affair with the famous, which seems to supply us with a kind of emotional power drink. Celebrities, and everything that surrounds them, provide a tonic for our psyches, a sort of glam Gatorade, if you will. We drink the sparkly elixir, and before the final drop hits the tongue we're already craving more.
James Houran, a clinical psychologist who has researched the subject of celebrity obsession in America, remarks that each of us has a little Larry King inside: "There is a celebrity stalker in all of us." Houran conducted a survey of six hundred people and determined that one person in three is a moderate to advanced celebrity worshiper. By my calculations, that means a little more than 33 percent of folks are deifying celebs, another 45 percent are the deified celebs, and 21 percent are still hoping to someday be deified.
The dazzle addiction isn't new. But for most of human history, fame was usually visited on an individual as a result of an actual accomplishment. For centuries, warriors, conquerors, kings, and the like were revered.
Things have changed, though, in a supersized way. In the Information Age, when we've got hundreds of TV channels to choose from, countless websites available to us, and magazines devoted to any topic we can imagine, we're constantly introduced to new faces and new stories. It's as if we've got an ever-expanding roster of celebs who are pretty much famous simply for being famous. Fresh stars are popping up like ragweed in a hayfield.
It's not just that technology exposes us to all kinds of people we might never have encountered decades ago. In the modern age, we have lots of spare time, a concept that our ancestors could never have imagined. As psychologist Joyce Brothers tells me, "We have the time and the effort and willingness to pay attention to things that aren't a matter of food and shelter and other needs.&
Excerpted from Hollywood Nation by James Hirsen with NewsMax.com Excerpted by permission.
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