Saturday, January 07, 2006

Still Wagging

About a year or so ago, I borrowed Wag the Dog on DVD from a co-worker, and never got around to watching it. Now, as I am preparing to move and sorting through all of flotsam and jetsom in my apartment, I came across this DVD and decided that I better watch it and return it. So I checked it out today.

For those of you who have not seen this movie, the synopsis is quite simple. When the U.S. president finds himself in the middle of a sex scandal two weeks before election day, his spin team hires a Hollywood producer to create the perception of a war going on with Albania to distract media and the public from the scandal and to win re-election by creating a patriotic fervor. Hilarity ensues. Little did the people behind this movie realize that the real life president was about to be embroiled in a sex scandal, and that their film would be referred to when he launched attacks on Iraq and Sudan. No hilarity that time.

While the similarities with the Clinton administration are uncanny, the brilliance of the movie is that its themes are universal. The messages about power and manipulation, as well as the willingness of the press to unquestioningly run with a "good story", apply as much now as ever. The film's protagonists needed a hero, so they dragged out Old Shoe. They could just as easily have used Jessica Lynch. Ever since Vietnam, the images of war have been so tightly controlled by the military and administrations that it is almost impossible to verify them independently. Embedded journalists could only see what their unit would let them see. The ones who worked independently often ended up dead. But the media have also been willing partners in manufacturing the message of power over the years, from Hearst's creation of the Spanish-American War to Judith Miller's creation of WMD.

The lesson one can take from all of this is to not be gullible. As Ronald Reagan once said, "trust but verify" - and be careful about the trust part. The internet is terrific in that there are so many new sources of information available, but those have to be checked closely as well. It kind of works like a jury in our confrontational legal system: If you allow yourself to be bombarded by many different messages with many different agendas, maybe you can start to decipher some truth. Then again, O.J. Simpson got to walk. And I know that was the most important thing in the world, because I saw it on TV.


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