Cybernetics in the 3rd Millennium (C3M) -- Volume 1 Number 3, Nov. 2002
Alan B. Scrivener --- www.well.com/~abs --- mailto:email@example.com
War of the Worldviews: Manipulating Visual Myths
"This is no movie, this is real."
"The last reel..."
--- The Firesign Theater, 1971
"Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers"
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00005T7IS/hip-20 )
This is an essay on truth and fiction in the written word, in
moving pictures, and on the internet. Librarians have long backed away from
the question of truth by classifying books as merely "fiction" or
"non-fiction." How are we to sort the communications that come our way?
Before there was either fiction or nonfiction there wer myth and
legend. Homer's "Odyssey" appeared at a cusp in history, when
previously oral traditions for the ear were being written down
and turned into literature for the eye.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0374525749/hip-20 )
Also the Greeks invented drama, acting out their myths and legends.
The innovation had a few bugs at first; sometimes more rural
audiences would leap onstage and try to lynch the bad guys.
The Romans pretty much invented history, the writing down of what
happened for its own sake. (They were the first empire based on
paper.) The mostly oral cultures of the Mediterranean and Middle
East had previously only written down religious pronouncements:
if village A defeated village B in battle, a stone would be carved
stating that village A's god had triumphed over village B's god.
The evolution of the idea of recording history is chronicled by
R. G. Collinwood in "The Idea of History" (1946).
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0195002059/hip-20 )
But books continued to contain either facts or drama until
the English invented fiction, starting with Daniel Defoe's
"Robinson Crusoe" (1719) which purported to be true but wasn't.
It was a lie, told to amuse. It begins:
"I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York,
of a good family, though not of that country..."
and none of these facts are true.
searchable on-line version:
This novel idea was called a "novel" and it caught on. The
first novels all had the same form: a counterfeit true account
of an adventure. Some people were fooled by the counterfeit,
and entered into a public debate on whether an expedition
should be mounted. When the hoax was explained, some
questioned the ethics of such a marketing technique.
Two hundred and fifty years later, when the American television
show "Gilligan's Island" began to air the fictional tale of seven
stranded castaways, the U.S. Coast Guard got calls from irate
citizens wanting to know why the castaways couldn't be rescued.
This is reported by producer Sherwood Schwartz in the TV documentary
"Surviving Gilligan's Island" (2001 TV US).
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00006FDDZ/hip-20 )
The question of what's "real" remains very important to us
humans. In 1948 George Orwell wrote in the novel "1984,"
"The Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance
with Eurasia. He, Winston Smith, knew that Oceania had
been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four
years ago. But where did that knowledge exist? Only in
his own consciousness, which in any case must soon be
annihilated. And if all others accepted the lie which
the Party imposed -- if all records told the same tale --
then the lie passed into history and became truth. 'Who
controls the past,' ran the Party slogan, 'controls the
future: who controls the present controls the past.' And
yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had
been altered. Whatever was true now was true from
everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All
that was needed was an unending series of victories
over your own memory. 'Reality control', they called
it: in Newspeak, 'doublethink'."
searchable on-line version:
As I monitor the click-throughs to Amazon.com from my web sites and
newsletters, I have found that the book "Cybernetics of Cybernetics"
(1974) gets the most attention. Subtitled "the control of control
and the communication of communication," it deals with issues of
the politics of technology and the technology of politics. It
contains these definitions from editor Heinz von Foerster:
"FIRST ORDER CYBERNETICS
the cybernetics of observed systems
SECOND ORDER CYBERNETICS
the cybernetics of observing systems"
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0964704404/hip-20 )
The first television broadcast ever, over radio waves that could
escape into space, was "real news," live coverage of the 1936
Berlin Olympics torch-lighting, which the Nazis turned into
a propaganda event. The science fiction movie "Contact" (1997 movie US)
makes much of this, with the swastika-laced images returning
to us in a reply message from well-meaning aliens.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0790733226/hip-20 )
Since then, television has been used as propaganda disguised as
"objective fact" quite successfully. At a university commencement
in the mid-1970s, a graduating student said in his speech:
"I believe that television is incapable of communicating
truth, and therefore all attempts to representing truth
on television should be banned."
One clarifying source of understanding for me has long been the work
of Canadian culture-watcher Herbert Marshall McLuhan. The book
of his that made the biggest impact on me was "Culture is
Our Business" (1970), long out of print. McLuhan tosses off
these acidic "bon mots," such as "violence is the expression
of identity" and "war as education," so it seemed appropriate
that I remembered the cover having a photo of Israeli Defense
Minister Moshe Dyan, with his trademark eye patch. When I finally
tracked down a copy recently at the San Diego Public Library,
I was surprised to find it was in fact the "Man in the Hathaway
Shirt" on the cover, with his trademark eye patch.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/007045437X/hip-20 )
The entire book is structured the same way: on each left hand
page are a few pithy paragraphs of McLuhan's poetic prose,
intermixed with quotes, presented in nicely spaced visual
chunks in alternating normal and bold face. Each right hand
page has a reproduction of an advertisement or other piece of
cultural "found art." Here I have a scanned a sample page:
One of the things he says is, "news is now-making, not matching."
Contrast that with getting your news from news.google.com
-- which definitely is about "matching."
McLuhan also made the point that the "content" of a news show
was mostly bad news, against which the "good news" of the
commercials would stand out even more.
At Kresge College, part of the University of California at
Santa Cruz (UCSC), I took a class from two faculty members
who were co-authoring a book, "The Structure of Magic" (1975),
which analyzed the techniques of great hypno-therapists.
John Grinder and Richard Bandler handed out mimeographed copies
of this work in progress. This was the beginning of the field
of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), later popularized by
infomercial-guru Tony Robbins.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0831400447/hip-20 )
For our class project, two other students and I used NLP
to analyze advertisements in magazines. on radio and on television.
One common pattern we found was the use of syntactically-
scrambled "word salad," which would distract the conscious
mind by "jamming the parser," allowing a simple message to
injected, unedited, into the unconscious, where the metaphoric
mind could absorb it whole. For example:
"Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should."
Correct grammar would be "as a cigarette should." The
error contributes to the distraction, allowing the imbedded
command "LIKE A CIGARETTE!" to enter the unconscious.
In other words, advertisement, like hypnotism, used a kind of
linguistic secret code designed to slip messages past conscious
filters into other places in the mind.
A few years later, my mentor, Gregory Bateson,
believing he was about to die (he had less than a year left)
agreed to give his "last lecture," to the Institute of
Contemporary Art in London, in September of 1979.
He also agreed to participate in a discussion with Henry
Skolimowskin and others at Dartington Hall, England the
following month. ( www.dartingtonhall.com/ )
I guess this then qualifies as his "last discussion."
Notes from this discussion are reprinted in "Sacred Unity:
Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind" (1991), a final
collection of Bateson's writing edited by Rodney E. Donaldson
and published posthumously.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0062501003/hip-20 )
The question was posed, "What is the sacred?" After mentioning
his Protestant ancestry, Bateson said:
"...the thing to do is obviously to go back to the
fourteenth or fifteenth century when they were
burning each other at the stake for what to today
looks like a quite crazy sort of proposition.
The Catholics were saying that the bread is the body
and the wine is the blood, and the Protestants wanted
to say, the bread stands for the body and the wine
stands for the blood. This difference seemed to them
to one for which it was reasonable to burn people and
reasonable to be burned. What on earth is this point?
The point is this. That, to a part of the mind there
is no distinction between the two. 'Stand for' and 'is'
are the same thing. But the Protestant, logical,
straightforward part of the brain cannot accept this.
The part of the brain which dreams, which on the whole
is the part the artist uses most, is perfectly willing
to accept the statement that "the bread is the body,"
and that of course is the part of the mind that really
belongs in church. What Protestantism did, in a sense,
was to exclude from the church the very part of the mind
which belongs in the church, in favor of a commonsense
logic and a passionate desire that everything should make
I began to see that the coded messages in advertising were also
meant for "the very part of the mind which belongs in the church,"
and that the rational "content" of magazines, radio and television
was quite irrelevant to this.
In the mid-1990s I attended a technical conference on a
computer graphics interface called the XWindow System.
Surprisingly, the keynote speaker was psychedelic guru
Timothy Leary. He described how an ignorant French peasant
might make the pilgrimage to the cathedral Notre Dame,
to have the combined effects of the choir, incense,
expansive Gothic architecture and breathtaking stained
glass windows blow his mind. "What is this?" he asks in wonder.
He went to describe how you might come home from work, switch on
the TV, and be bombarded by a series of hypnotic and fascinating
images and sounds. "What is this?" you say, and a voice says,
"The night belongs to Michelob."
Leary admonished the technologists, who were creating the
interactive multimedia capabilities of the future, to guard
how this awesome power would be used.
Clearly this manipulation of unconscious minds is done by
persons with conscious purposes. In 1976 the movie industry turned
its shuttered film cameras on the unblinking eye of TV, in the black
comedy "Network." Actor Peter Finch portrayed newscaster Howard Beale,
who became "the mad prophet of the airwaves" in a strange
ratings-driven transformation. Most people remember him for his
admonition to his audience to stick their heads out the window and
shout, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more!"
But of course that made no difference. More significant was his
attempt to educate his audience on the political economy of
broadcasting ownership. In one Jeremiah-like broadcast he shouted:
"Edward George Ruddy died today! Edward George Ruddy was the
Chairman of the Board of the Union Broadcasting Systems -- and
woe is us if it ever falls in the hands of the wrong people.
And that's why woe is us that Edward George Ruddy died. Because
this network is now in the hands of CC and A the Communications
Corporation of America. We've got a new Chairman of the Board, a
man named Frank Hackett now sitting in Mr. Ruddy's office on the
twentieth floor. And when the twelfth largest company in the world
controls the most awesome g**damned propaganda force in the whole
godless world, who knows what s**t will be peddled for truth on
this tube? So, listen to me! Television is not the truth!
Television is a g**damned amusement park, that's what television
is! ... In God's name, you people are the real thing! We're the
illusions! So turn off this g**dam set! Turn it off right now!
Turn it off and leave it off. Turn it off right now, right in
the middle of this very sentence I'm speaking now --"
But, of course, the Byzantine structure of the corporate control
of television was a bore to Howard's short-attention span audiences.
Even the movie "Network" had to use sex to sell it -- scenes of
attractive actress Faye Dunaway nude, making love, were interspersed
with illuminations on the topic at hand.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00003OSTQ/hip-20 )
In 1986 when ABC television was bought by Capital Cities Inc., the
new owners quickly canceled "Max Headroom" and "Our World," two shows,
one fiction and one news format, that looked at how television affected
At that time I had a friend who worked for ABC in Hollywood.
He pointed out to me that Capital Cities had been run by William
Casey, now the CIA director, and had been accused of being a CIA front
organization. Did this mean that the CIA now ran ABC television?
It seemed nobody in the press wanted to ask that question. An
article in the "Los Angeles Weekly" called the ABC purchase one of
the most-censored stories of 1986.
I remember in Victor Marchetti's "CIA and the Cult of Intelligence"
(1974) that he described how the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency
placed "moles" in US news organizations to manage disinformation
programs. In other words, to feed lies to the American people
through their news sources.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0394482395/hip-20 )
Testifying before congress in the 1980s, Casey assured the lawmakers
that the CIA still had disinformation programs, and they were working
better than ever. Apparently, post-Watergate paranoia about CIA
domestic spying didn't flop over into concern about domestic lying.
In later congressional testimony Lt. Oliver North told us about another
of Casey's projects, what he called an "off the shelf, self financing,
independent covert operations" capability that could operate without
congressional oversight. One of the guys working on this was Admiral
John Poindexter, who is now back in government service with a new
Orwellian project, the Information Awareness Office (IAO).
The logo for this new office has the old "eye in the pyramid"
spying on the world. See:
English mystic Aleister Crowley frequently used the
acronym IAO in his writings:
"The Formula of I.A.O. ...
'I' is Isis, Nature, ruined by 'A', Apophis the
Destroyer, and restored to life by the Redeemer
and he also claimed connection to the secret Masonic order
known as the Illuminati. Are Poindexter and company deliberately
trying to freak out the conspiracy theorists?
( www.pitchforkmedia.com/record-reviews/z/zorn_john/iao.shtml )
In 1987 Hollywood again focused its film cameras on the television
industry with "Broadcast News," about more believable and imminent
threats to a free press, in the form of the devolution of the news
into emotional entertainment. It makes much of a character played
by William Hurt who uses editing tricks to fake a spontaneous outburst
of tears during an interview. The movie really grapples with the issue
of how much production expediency we are willing to tolerate in the
packaging of our "truth." (This movie wasn't as hard-hitting as
"Network," and I wondered if there was a chilling effect on
Hollywood from "moles" and other spooks.)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/6301066162/hip-20 )
And this brings me to one of the main things I wanted to talk
about today, the "counterfeit documentaries" of English film
director Peter Watkins.
Like Defoe in "Robinson Crusoe," Watkins uses the artifice of pretending
his story is completely real, but now with a movie camera instead of a pen.
I had heard of this guy in my teens, long before I got to see any
of his stuff. It seemed he had a talent for getting fired and having
his films banned. The rumor was that he was first hired by the British
school system to make a documentary for students about the Battle of
Hastings in 1066, part of the Norman Conquest. Thing was, he made it
so realistic and gory that it made students sick. Then the BBC hired
him make a documentary about a nuclear bomb accidentally going off in
England and its aftermath. Again it was so realistic that the BBC never
showed it, fearing it would frighten viewers. He seemed to be carving
out a "true horrors" niche for himself.
Thanks to ad hoc film festivals in college dining halls I was finally
able to see three of his films. Thanks to internet I was able to buy
videotape copies of some of them as well, from Amazon.com and in the
cases of rarer films from eBay ( /ebay.com ) by auction;
also I have been able to get more detailed and accurate information
about him. For example, a nice article is at:
The Internet Movie Database ( imdb.com ) gives a list of his
So I am able to clear up some misinformation in the rumors.
It was Watkin's "Culloden" (1964 movie UK) which had superrealistic gore
in portraying the Battle of Culloden, 1746, that marked the end
of the Jacobite Rebellion, as Scots troops supporting Bonnie
Prince Charlie's claims to the British throne were soundly defeated
by the English. (Not the Battle of Hastings.) It also featured
on-screen interviewers with cameras and microphones, in the style of
contemporary Vietnam War news. (I still haven't seen it.)
"The War Game" (1965 TV UK) is the BBC documentary of an accidental
nuclear explosion in England, and the civil disturbance, loss
of civil rights, brutality, famine and suppression of the news
media which followed. I know a student who saw it and remarked,
"I didn't even know that a nuclear bomb had gone off in England."
Nothing within the film works to dispel the illusion that it
is a genuine visual record of an actual event, but of course it
is entirely fictional, like Orson Well's "War of the Worlds"
radio broadcast that caused widespread panic in 1939 -- and
that's partly why the BBC refused to air it. (I'm sure they also
didn't want to remind their public how vulnerable they all were,
and how unprepared their government was for such an emergency.)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000007SYV/hip-20 )
"The Gladiators" -- original title "The Peace Game" -- (1969 movie Sweden),
was a science fiction film meant to look like a documentary
somehow sent back 25 years back in time from the year (gasp)
1994! War has been abolished and replaced with computer-controlled
gladiatorial combat between allied and Communist Chinese soldiers,
held in the Swedish countryside and refereed by their computer
engineers, all the while televised worldwide, and watched intently
by the commanding generals (both sides together, you see) taking
their tea and cakes.
Sure, it's a bit ham-handed and quite flawed. I taped a portion
of it off TV in 1992, frustrated at missing the first 45 minutes,
but then when it was supposed to be rebroadcast they instead showed
another movie, "The New Gladiators" which was a "Mad Max" type B movie
featuring a Playboy Playmate in a skimpy outfit. Clearly my movie had
been shown by mistake, and campy schlock was what the TV station --
and its viewers -- had wanted.
Finally in 2000 I located it on eBay.com, won the auction, and
got my very own copy to study. When I pulled it out of the mailer
I was surprised by the box cover: in a lurid-looking painting, a
woman dressed only in panties and a gun belt faces away from you,
reaching for some kind of space-age gun in her holster, while on
a chessboard in the background an Anglo and a Chinese man shoot
it out under a harvest moon... Clearly the people selling the
videos also hoped to confuse the public about which movie this was.
When I played it, I realized why: it was almost unwatchable.
I had to force myself in small doses. (It had been easier as a
twenty-something in an art theater.) But when I finally finished
it, I found the memory haunting. (Sometimes a failure with grand
aspirations can be more inspirational than a success with modest goals.)
One thing it showed was a pecking order between the participants
in the Peace Games: the foot soldiers (maybe thirty of them on
each side) reported to the Generals, who were taking their cues
from the Swedish computer engineers running the computer
and therefore the game, who in turn would jump when they got
a telephone call from the sponsor (Bolognini Pasta Company
of Naples, Italy) demanding more violence.
Sure, this is pretty blatant. But there were subtler things as
well. We saw the Chinese troops marching along a railroad bridge.
Cut to a train coming. Will it hit them on the bridge? No, it
passes them now by the side of the tracks, reading Chairman Mao
together. I realized that this was a documentary filmmaker's
trick -- to edit together otherwise boring footage to create a
hint of danger, to elevate the excitement; a little shady,
perhaps, but "that's edutainment." I also realized that this
technique does not appear very much in fictional films, since
the excitement can be built into the script. So Watkin's use
of this technique reinforces the illusion of it being a documentary.
His major stumbling block is in tackling the subject of a live
television broadcast from within a film. There are no visible
TV monitors or video footage, which would have made it much more
powerful. But techniques for synchronizing film and video
were in their infancy in 1969, and very expensive, certainly
beyond Watkin's budget.
In "Punishment Park" (1971 movie US) Watkins backs away from live TV and
presents what purports to be news film footage, which he is better
able to pull off. (At that time TV stations still used film, shot
with hand-held cameras and delivered by courier to the stations to
developed, edited and aired by 5 o'clock.) The premise is that after
growing civil unrest due to Nixon's expanding the Vietnam War, the
president invokes the McCarran Act of 1950 which gives him the power
to declare an emergency and detain citizens on a mass scale without
constitutional protections like habeas corpus and the right to a
speedy trial. (Look it up. Of course this law would never pass
a court challenge, but it has never been tested.) We are allegedly
watching a film record shot by English and West German TV crews
to show the world the "truth" about these incarcerations.
By this time Watkin's command of the news camera idiom is excellent
-- it is hard to remember that what we are seeing is not a real
TV documentary. And of course the politics are incendiary.
It seems like every thing Watkins has done has brought him more
hostility, both from his potential clients and the public at large.
The typical complaint is that he might confuse and/or upset people
with these phony documentaries, but underneath I think there is a
deep anxiety about someone manipulating these compelling and
unforgettable images who is not authorized to manufacture reality.
In researching this newsletter I found that Peter Watkins has once
again made a film, this one called "La Commune (Paris, 1871)" (2001 movie),
based on the true story of a Paris commune. And at the same time
director Geoff Bowie has produced a documentary about Watkins and
the making of this film, "Universal Clock: The Resistance of Peter
Watkins" (2001 movie). A Toronto Globe and Mail reviewer says the title
comes from a "Discovery Channel executive who speaks of his efforts
to convince the world's TV directors to make their one-hour
features 47 minutes, 30 seconds long to make room for
commercials and station breaks."
In "Going Too Far: the Rise and Demise of Sick, Gross, Black,
Sophomoric, Weirdo, Pinko, Anarchist, Underground, Anti-Establishment
Humor" (1987), comedy author Tony Hendra begins with a quote that
sheds some light on the type of people who don't appreciate a joke:
"A joke is not a joke when it deals with
the sacred goods of the nation."
-- Josef Goebbles
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0385232233/hip-20 )
He later describes the arrival of art director Michael Gross at the
humor magazine "National Lampoon," and his efforts to make the
magazine's parodies look exactly like the things being parodied:
"It wasn't until I sat down with Henry [Beard] that I could
say it in simple terms. I flipped through the magazine and
there was an article about postage stamps... I said, 'What
you've done here is no different than mad magazine would do...
They would have Jack Davis do funny drawings of postage stamps.
You've got an underground cartoonist doing funny drawings of
postage stamps. What you need is postage stamps that LOOK LIKE
postage stamps. The level of satire you've written here isn't
being graphically translated.' In one deft example, Gross put
his finger on what was wrong with the current art direction,
[and] forever cut the Lampoon away from the underground..."
Though he moved the magazine away from an underground look, he made
it much more subversive in the process. It too would engage in the
unauthorized manufacture of reality.
Nowadays the "fake documentary" style pioneered by Peter Watkins
has its own name: the "mockumentary" film. Examples have included:
"Real Life" (1979 movie US) directed by Albert Brooks, which purports to
be a "reality movie" made by placing cameras in an American home.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/6300213943/hip-20 )
"The Rutles -- All You Need Is Cash" (1978 TV US) -- this TV special
was produced by some of the members of Monty Python and the
Bonzo Dog Band.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00004ZEU2/hip-20 )
"This is Spinal Tap" (1984 movie US), a spoof of heavy metal music.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/6305922756/hip-20 )
"Medusa: Dare to Be Truthful" (1992 TV US), Julie Brown's send-up of
singer Madonna and her "Truth or Dare" documentary (Ms. Brown's
title seems to be a merger of Madonna's with Weird Al Yankovic's
"Dare to Be Stupid.")
Interestingly, all but one focus on rock music, which is a less
scary topic than war, disaster, or politics.
When the breakout hit "The Blair Witch Project" (1999 movie US) appeared
on the cultural horizon, the big news was 1) the film was shot for
a pittance on camcorders that were then returned to the store for
a refunds, and 2) the internet was used in a very creative way to
promote the movie. This "creative way" involved creating a web site
that was allegedly true. Only after a large following of web visitors
were concerned about the missing documentary movie makers and their
creepy found footage, was the fictional nature of the project revealed.
As with Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe," when the hoax was explained, some
questioned the ethics of such a marketing technique.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00001QGUM/hip-20 )
"Part B: REAL and REEL
1. How does mockumentary work within the Post-Modern Frame?"
-- course syllabus from University of New South Wales,
Online merchant Barnes and Noble actually has a category devoted to
the "mockumentary" form; see:
This brings us to the recently created genre of "fake news."
The granddaddy of them all must be the old "That Was the Week That
Was" (UK 1962, USA 1964), Remarkably, its cast included such stars
and stars-to-be as:
Alan Alda, Steve Allen, Woody Allen, Art Carney,
Bill Cosby, David Frost, Buck Henry, Elaine May,
Audrey Meadows, Henry Morgan, Mike Nichols,
Tom Poston, Mort Sahl, and Larry Storch,
with original music by Tom Lehrer.
Every week they used songs and skits to lampoon the news of the
previous week. Also, they were able to tweak their sponsors
since they expected no reruns of the show and therefore knew which
commercials would run when. The most memorable instance happened
when they showed a catsup commercial that had hamburger buns
"flipping" for a brand of catsup -- it ended with the buns rising
into the air with exuberance. Cut to David Frost, who begins
reading a news story when a bunch of hamburger buns fall on his head.
The show had a light touch, and didn't look like a real newscast.
Subsequently, "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" (1968 - 1973 TV US)
featured "Laugh In Looks at the News," which eerily predicted that
Ronald Reagan would be president from 1981 to 1988, and that the
Berlin Wall would fall in the fall of 1989. It also didn't
look like real news.
"Saturday Night Live" (1975 - present TV US) featured the "Weekend
Update" segment, originally always at midnight and looking just like
a network mini-news show. The first time I saw it (in the surreal
location of a Disney employee cafeteria under the Cinderella Castle
at Walt Disney World, Florida) I thought at first it was a real newscast.
As a photo was shown of a parrot on Gerald Ford's head, Chevy Chase
was saying, "President Ford had surgery today to remove a parrot growing
out of his head..." I did a double-take. Clearly the humor depended
on the newscast looking real, like the satire in National Lampoon
under Michael Gross' art direction.
More recently SNL's Weekend Update has devolved. One newscaster began,
"I'm Norm McDonald and this is the fake news." (He was fired by a
network executive for "not being funny" though some said it was
because he was making fun of network executives on the air.)
On the pay-cable network Home Box Office (HBO), there was "Not
Necessarily the News" (1983 - 1990 TV US) based on the British
news parody, "Not the Nine O'clock News" (1979 TV UK)
It also looked real, and used the shock value of absurd
reports to achieve some of its humor.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/6301928202/hip-20 )
Beginning in 1992, US cable TV network Comedy Central offered comedy
coverage of the presidential election, as an outgrowth of their
political coverage on shows such as the "Political Asylum" segment
on "Short Attention Span Theater." Billing the special series
"92 inDecision" (1992 TV US), they featured SNL-veteran AL Franken
and a host of real and bogus pundits generally razzing the video
feed from the political conventions, with occasional reports from
balconies inside the conventions.
In one canned segment, Joe Queenan, billed as a "Journalist" (with
writing credits "Spy Magazine" and "GQ") gives analysis from the
streets of New York City:
"I want to talk little bit about front runners. Front runners
are people who wear baseball caps from a town thousands of
miles away who just won a championship. So a front runner is
a person who started wearing a Chicago Bulls cap and he lives
in New York or New Jersey or Florida, and he started wearing the
cap five minutes after the Bulls won the championship. Or a
person who lives in Oregon who started wearing a Washington
Redskins cap five minutes after they won the superbowl. Or
somebody from Guadalajara, or Bajo Villanueva, New Mexico who's
wearing a Pittsbug Penguins cap. So the whole point of this,
those are people who can not stand being associated with teams
that didn't just win a championship, and they immediately switch
allegiances the next time somebody else wins. Why am I telling
you this? Because that's the Ross Perot vote. The independent
vote, the swing vote, which we have found from rigorous scientific
study, is in fact the front runner, the person wearing the Bulls
cap, the person wearing the Penguins cap. So what we're going to
do today is we're just going to go out in the streets of New York
and we're going to pick independently identified front runners out
of the crowd and we're going to show you they all are going to
vote for Ross Perot."
Queenan then accosts a man in a Bulls cap he's been wearing for about
three years, "since they started winning," and he's voting for Perot.
Next a kid in a Bulls shirt redirects Queenan to his uncle, who is
voting for Perot. A man approaches wearing a Brown University
sweatshirt. Queenan addresses the camera in a stage whisper: "These
guys haven't won a championship in 5,000 years," and sure enough
as predicted the man is voting for Clinton. Another man wearing a
sweatshirt from National Magazine, which lost hundreds of millions
of dollars and went out of business six months previously, is
also backing Clinton.
I think this may be the most important political story in the last
ten years, and it was a joke! This was in July of 1992, and a few
days later Perot pulled out of the race and Clinton just happened to
be leading Bush by a few points. All the "front runners" in Perot's
base jumped to Clinton, who held the lead for the rest of the race.
If this theory is true, elections are decided by people with no
ideological considerations, who just want to look smart. How
frustrated they must have been in 2000 and 2002, with so many races
too close to call! (They probably just stayed home.)
Comedy Central reprised the specials in "inDecision '96" (1996 TV US),
but then abandoned the format, in part because they were banned from
the convention floors. (I don't know the story behind this, but I sure
would like to.) The election coverage was folded into a new nighttime
talk show, "The Daily Show" (1996 - present, TV US), with special
segments on "inDecision 2000." Host Jon Stewart told an interviewer,
"When we decided to call it 'inDecision 2000,' we didn't know the people
would really GO with that," referring to the ongoing recounts which
caused the election, and the segment "inDecision 2000," to drag on and
on, which kept making the joke funnier.
The Daily Show expanded its political coverage this year with the first
ever mid-term election segment, "Half Way to the White House 2002."
On November 12th of this year, Alexandria Pelosi was a guest,
promoting her new project "Journeys With George." She was an NBC producer
who went on the campaign bus with George W. Bush for 18 months and
captured events with a camcorder, then edited it together into this
documentary. She also, coincidentally, is the daughter of Representative
Nancy Pelosi (Democrat California), who was just became the new House
Minority Leader. Alexandria sold "Journeys With George" to HBO, who
broadcast it as a special last week, hence the promotional tour.
Some interesting stuff came out in the interview:
JS: You know what was fascinating to me was, it wasn't even
so much what it revealed about George Bush as what it
revealed about the media who was covering. Was that an
unintended consequence? Have your friends that work
within the media said to you, 'Jeez, are we that cynical,
are we that dark?'
AP: ... I tried to capture [what George W. Bush was really like] and
in the course of that what it revealed was really more about
the reporters than about him and in the end, I mean you know,
covering the presidential campaign you go to these staged
photo ops, it's all total propaganda, and so over the course
of a year and a half I think what I was doing was
deconstructing sort of the way the campaign like kind of
hurdles you around like cattle and ropes you off in the
back of the room and spoon feeds you, you know, this crap,
and so in the end --
JS: ... but why, I guess my question is, why put up with it?
'Cause a lot of time you'll turn the camera on to your
colleagues and they'll say, 'Ah, we're a bunch of lemmings,
I can't believe we're --', you know, so why not figure out
another way or does that not come up, is it, everyone is
sort of inside the bubble?
AP: Yeah, I mean, you know, we all have rents to pay. Everyone
has a mortgage at home, people have, it's part of the dirty
little secret of corporate television, is that the people that
can afford to get there and cover campaigns, really, you know,
you have to, it's a dance, you have to dance with the campaign,
you know they feed you every single meal that you eat, and so
if you ask them a tough question, you have to play by the rules --
JS: They feed you every meal?
What the fake news is teaching us, ultimately, is that all news is fake.
When Newton finally published his theory of gravity, magazine
cartoonists mocked him with upside-down clowns explaining
the theories of Gravity and Levity. But the question of what
is serious and what is a joke is a very serious question.
For example, what is a serious candidate? Perot got his high poll
numbers in part because the networks let him debate Bush and Clinton.
They decided he was a "serious" candidate. In 2000 they decided that
Nader and Robertson, among others, were not serious candidates. Hey,
we didn't get to vote on that decision. But for the swing votes it was
enough -- "not a serious candidate" is code for "loser."
In a democracy, control of the news media is a vital issue that affects
the public interest perhaps more than any other issue. In Frank
Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939), actor Jimmy Stewart
plays a common man duped into becoming a Senator in the service of
a political machine. When he rebels, and single-handedly filibusters
to stall a pork-barrel project in his state, the newspapers, TV and
radio stations in his state refuse to cover it. When his sympathizers
field loudspeaker cars and pamphlets they are stopped with violence
from the political machine's goons. Without a free press Mr. Smith's
battle cannot be won.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00003UCB0/hip-20 )
I am grateful that in 2002 we have the internet, and I can choose
from the liberal-biased CNN ( www.cnn.com ) or the
conservatively-biased Fox ( www.foxnews.com ) or the
libertarian-biased Reason ( www.reason.com ) or the
tabloid-like Matthew Drudge ( www.drudgereport.com ) or a
bunch of blogs ( www.weblogs.com ) or just go
nuts on the newsgroups ( http:/www.groups.google.com ).
I am grateful because I know all earthlings don't have the web
freedoms I do. This week in China people were executed for what they
posted on web sites.
We are even free to see (or create) fake news web sites, such as
and Mad Magazine's parody of the parody:
Through the eye of the media I am grappling with the Firesign Theater's
old question, "What is reality?" Because I cannot resist the urge to
taxonomy, I offer the following matrix:
| tale | book | movie | web
fictional | 1 | 5 | 9 | 13
realistic p.o.v. | 2 | 6 | 10 | 14
claims to be real | 3 | 7 | 11 | 15
"is" real | 4 | 8 | 12 | 16
I leave it to the reader to categorize all the stories, books,
movies (film and video) and web sites mentioned in this essay.
A sticking point: does anything at all belong in the "is" real
category? How about Andy Warhol's eight-hour movie of the Empire
State Building, "Empire" (1964 movie US)?
In John Carpenter's underground classic "Dark Star" (1974 movie US),
astronauts sent to destroy cancerous plants have to contend with a
"smart bomb" that has been erroneously armed several times and now
refuses to go back into the bomb bay because it "wants to explode."
Seeking guidance, the crew attempts to communicate with the
captain who they cryogenically froze after a mortal accident.
After they explain the problem, the captain manages to whisper,
"Talk to it about ... epistemology..."
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00000F169/hip-20 )
My "American Heritage Dictionary" defines "epistemology" as
"the division of philosophy that investigates the nature and origin
of knowledge," from the Greek "to stand upon."
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0395825172/hip-20 )
Once in the mid-1970s I was sitting in Bateson's office at
Kresge College while he opened his mail and dictated correspondence
to his secretary, Judith van Slooten. In the midst of reading
a letter from some bureaucrat he turned to me and said, "You see,
some people think they don't have an epistemology, they 'just know
things.' Of course, these people have a very bad epistemology."
Gregory Bateson's most succinct statement about what he means by
epistemology is in "Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (Advances
in Systems Theory, Complexity, and the Human Sciences)" (1979)
"THE PROCESSES OF IMAGE FORMATION ARE UNCONSCIOUS"
and goes on to elaborate:
"The two general facts -- first, that that I am unconscious
of the process of making the images which I consciously see
and, second, that in these unconscious processes, I use a
whole range of presuppositions that get built into the
finished image -- are, for me, the beginning of empirical
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1572734345/hip-20 )
Bateson recommended the study of optical illusions as an aid to
empirical epistemology. And here reach the finale of this
overly-long essay. I was originally planning to close with a snide
reference to the computer-animated "bloopers" at the end of "Toy
Story 2," but then a far more appropriate set of mental tools came
my way, when I had a visit from my old Boy Scout buddy David DeMers,
who has spent much of his adult life studying how to predict financial
markets. He said when he goes to speak at conferences he can't talk
about his research, since it's all intellectual property being
protected by "trade secret" status, so instead he talks about
"cognitive illusions," which are persistent logical errors that
people make, that don't go away when they are pointed out to us
or even when we are able to practice. Experts do worst of all.
Dave says he and his associates study this stuff to try to avoid
fooling themselves about their data. It's a known effect that
gamblers -- and stock traders -- often subjectively think they've
won more than they actually have.
For a talk he gave with audio and slides in a Flash animation,
and follow the link to the talk on "Cognitive Illusions and Pattern
"You never know."
-- sign on Tom Lehrer's office door
at the University of California
at Santa Cruz (UCSC)
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Copyright 2002 by Alan B. Scrivener