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Jazz, Politics, Edward Kennedy and the Ghosts of Richard Nixon: Our American Dialogue and the Hatfields and McCoys

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So you need to ask yourself if you really believe that Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow know so much more about the complexities of the nation's governance, and its impact on our lives, that they should be listened to so closely. Is Rush Limbaugh really privy to the The Truth? Does Brian Williams really learn things at those Beltway cocktail parties that give him Big Insights you could never expect to attain yourself? Are Dennis Miller's Bristol Palin jokes any worse or better than Bill Maher's? Is David Gregory's opinion really any more valuable than your Starbucks barrista's?

I'm not suggesting that everyone in the news media is bad, or that you should cut yourself off from all outside information sources and influences. The people I've mentioned have occasional moments of clarity. But you could live quite well without them, and maybe lead a happier life. Because, while your cable provider or internet provider can supply you with opinions from the entire gamut of political views, facts are in short supply, no matter which of them you listen to. No matter which sources of information you use, all are influenced in their reporting by individual viewpoints, prejudices and opinions. Quite aside from that, each network boss' or newspaper publisher's agenda can and does trump any one of their own views, and dictate what any one of them says. If that talking head you are watching wishes to be on the air tomorrow and collect a check at the end of the week, he or she has not only gotten the memo, they've got it framed. They are doing most of what they do for money and power, selling you viewpoints like barkers at a carnival.

Finding the Off Switch

Sorting the wheat from the chaff can be tedious, sometimes impossible work. But facts are unquestionably what you need. It's a big world, and it's getting bigger. The planet's many cultures, the multiplicity of concerns and interactions, and the permutating implications for all of us, have reached daunting proportions. But no matter how big it all gets, no matter how tempting it would be to have an oracle or seer you could rely on for filtering and interpreting it, you will never be able to trust anything as much as what you can see with your own eyes.

In fact, there is great danger in drawing conclusions and making decisions based on anything but what you have observed for yourself. That means you are in for a lot of work. The 1976 movie Network won four Academy Awards for telling a truth so terrible that it made people laugh, a truth that is even truer and more terrible in the era of cable news than it was then. It is the story of network news anchor Howard Beale, "the first known instance of a man who was killed because of lousy ratings." Paddy Chayevsky's acidly satiric screenplay and Peter Finch's brilliant acting (as well as that of William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, Beatrice Straight, et al) brought the corruption of the Information Age into disturbingly sharp focus.

Finch's Howard Beale, after discovering he's going to be sacked in two weeks because of sagging ratings, decides to literally go out with a bang. An alcoholic whose life is already in shambles, Beale unravels and announces on the air that the following Tuesday he will kill himself during a live broadcast. In the intervening days he begins ranting dramatically, detailing his views on the dissolution of our culture at the hands of his employer, the fictional UBS television network, its parent corporation CCA, and the Saudi conglomerate which is buying CCA. His rants have a unmistakable bell-like ring of truth. As the saying goes, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean no one is after you.



This farcical Shakespearean tragedy has several unhappy endings, and continues to have them on both sides of the blurred and often-moved line between fact and fiction. Within a few weeks of the film's release, Finch was dead of a heart attack at age 60, and four years later Paddy Chayevsky, dead of cancer at age 58. It wasn't for lousy ratings that they had died, though, but for the sins that would be committed in television news for all the decades to come. Any flicker of truth that has managed to find a way into the information stream pouring from this proverbial tube/screen has been used to sell us layer after layer of distortions, confusions, and lies.

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