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Handouts and Histrionics

Article IV: Confessions of a News Junkie


"Ultimately, the realization I emerged with from this was that theatre's power, politically, is the ability to assign a human face to a problem."


In continuing my steady accumulation of 9-11 memorabilia, a while back I received my copy of a graphic adaptation of the 9/11 Report. Some reviewers have been very dismissive of it, correctly observing that it consists, for the most part, of stating facts and then illustrating them (e.g. the text will read "President Bush said..." and then show a picture of President Bush, rather than finding a more dynamic way to visually dramatize the events). I would argue that they're underestimating the value of being able to attach a human face to the events in question. It's one thing to read "Three Arab nationals set off an alarm and were directed to a second metal detector, but they quickly passed inspection." There's a more immediate, visceral impact to seeing it happen.

I spent a couple of months teaching a series of classes on melodrama to a group of teenagers, with a particular focus on theatre as political action. Ultimately, the realization I emerged with from this was that theatre's power, politically, is the ability to assign a human face to a problem. An economist can pull out countless charts and statistics, abstractly indicating the idea of poverty -- but an actor can give you a direct, emotional connection. This can be, by turns, illuminating or manipulative. (The two responses may be of necessity intertwined, which is itself a troubling concept that I'm continuing to struggle with.)

Along those lines, coming home from class one night, I was flipping back and forth between CNN and Fox News, respectively regarded as the bastions of the left and the right, and -- it was a surreal experience.

FOX, you see, underscores everything with a rapid, pulse-pounding beat, rapidly switching from scene to scene, offering melodramatic voice-overs and pundits screaming at me, attempting to create news as a kind of action movie.

Then I flipped back to CNN. They were in the middle of some human-interest story about, I dunno, autistic kids or something. The camera was using a soft-focus lens, and piano music was playing in the background. I saw an image of a window, and of someone pressing their hand against it from the other side. And I thought, ah. If FOX is giving me the news as an action movie, then CNN is giving me the news as a bad Lifetime for Women television special.
Both of them, I recognize, are struggling with the same problem -- finding a way to create that emotional connection between the information they're providing and their audience. Thing is, what we see are journalists pretending to be filmmakers, and they're doing it badly.

This, I suppose, is why I have little patience with those who complain about programs like the Daily Show and the Colbert Report -- because they're filmmakers pretending to be journalists, and they're doing it well.