Million-Dollar Media Yields Cheap Thrills

By Lucy Komisar
Inter Press Service (IPS), Aug 10, 2007

Credit:Joan Marcus

Frank Langella as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon

Two Broadway plays expose how the media and its stars, at both the high and the low end, manipulate politics to turn news stories into emotional confrontations.

The goal in each case, of course, is to reach the highest entertainment level — and the biggest buck.

Frost/Nixon by British playwright Peter Morgan takes place in 1977. British talk show host David Frost (played by Michael Sheen), trying desperately for a comeback, wheedles and bribes disgraced ex-President Richard Nixon (the superb Frank Langella) to submit to hours of interviews whose high-spot turns out to be a confession to the crimes of Watergate.

That scandal, which erupted in June 1972, began with the arrest of five men who had broken into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Washington office complex and hotel called the Watergate. Nixon and his staff’s attempted cover-up of the break-in ultimately led to his resignation on Aug. 8, 1974.

We all knew he did it, but the thrill was seeing the man confess to the public, to millions of viewers. Gotcha! The story actually happened.

A U.S. journalist working on the show wants to give Nixon the trial he never had, to deal with the integrity of the political system, of democracy as an idea. But Frost’s program wouldn’t be about corruption in politics. How could it, when even landing the interview was checkbook journalism.

Frost wrote out a big one, and then we see the greedy Nixon fighting with his Hollywood agent Swifty Lazar over the check. At another point, Nixon tells Frost, You should marry that woman. She comes from Monaco. They pay no taxes. No surprise that Nixon knew all about offshore tax evasion.

Frost himself had no political convictions. He never even voted. And he was not a very good journalist, not smart enough. The talk with Nixon is banal. There are anecdotes about the ex-president taking a bed to Europe, just the kind of irrelevant pap that talk show hosts focus on. Nixon brilliantly finesses Frost throughout most of the interviews.

Nixon laughs as he talks about kneeling to pray with his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. He reveals his early resentments when he was looked down on by the rich.

But Frost understood television. He knew that the story he wanted to tell was based on the exploitation of the media close-up, on the coup of watching a real-life emotional revelation. He got the smoking gun question from the transcript of a taped Nixon conversation.

When White House lawyer John Dean had reported that it might take a million dollars to buy the silence of the Watergate burglars, Nixon told him: We could get that… if you need the money, I mean, you could get the money… [Y]ou could get a million dollars. And you could get it in cash. I know where it could be gotten.

The Watergate investigations would show that the money came from offshore accounts that U.S. corporations keep to transmit bribes. That revelation led in the Jimmy Carter administration (1977-1981) to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act — a law largely ignored for years.

When Frost asks Nixon, Are you saying that the president can decide?, we start to think about U.S. politics today. Nixon replies, I’m saying when the president does it, it’s not illegal. The audience reacts palpably: That’s George W. Bush.

Above on the backdrop, a huge TV screen shows the actual scene as U.S. audiences saw it.

Frost challenges Nixon to admit that he was part of the Watergate cover-up. When the ex-president finally confesses, he seems to have marbles in his mouth: I was involved in a cover-up. Your eyes go to the large screen to see the details of a face that is bloated and ravaged, expressing loneliness, self-loathing and defeat.

The TV broadcast was about psychology more than politics. It got the largest audience of a news program in U.S. television history. And it made more than a million dollars in advertising revenues for Frost.

Politics and psychology are a profitable combination. Usually, the politics gets lost. LevWe see them again in Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio, where Barry Champlain (the compelling Liev Schreiber) is the host of the call-in show, Night Talk. This is not big-time. It’s only Cleveland, a medium town in the center of the United States. And the psychological sparring and acting out are a lot cruder than on national TV.

Bogosian wrote the play in 1988, but it resonates as much today as it did then. It’s a low version of Frost’s TV interview, with Champlain spewing forth one part personal venom to every part political rage.

He is left-wing and cynical: This country is rotten to the core. The CIA is bringing in drugs to pay for wars. Iran-Contra… legalize drugs, you put the CIA and mafia out of business.

Most U.S. citizens are still not aware that in the 1980s the CIA ran an illegal drugs-for-arms trade to support the right-wing Contras fighting to overthrow the government of Nicaragua. It did it sub rosa, because Congress had banned support for the Contras.

The real world Bogosian dissects has nothing to do with the inner worlds of his listeners, who live through the radio. They don’t seem very bright. Some are confused. One caller accuses him of being the Jews’ spokesman for Israel. Someone sends him a box with a dead rat and a Nazi flag.

Champlain in return is obnoxious and nasty to his listeners. He attacks the audience, screams at them and insults them. He tells them, You revel in attacks and car accidents. You’re happiest when others are in pain. His voice grows from calm to angry. Your own lives have become your entertainment. You want to see how deep into the muck we can go. You’re pathetic. I abuse you, I insult you. Why do you keep calling back? What’s wrong with you? Are these the voters who voted for Nixon, and then for Ronald Reagan?

The executive who oversees the show doesn’t much like the content, but he likes the revenues it brings in.

From his desk in a studio, back-dropped by the glass-enclosed control room, Champlain is always on edge and on the edge, quite different from the smooth, laid-back Frost. But as in Frost/Nixon, the politics in his media world is overpowered by emotion — only in radio, it’s called shock. Both plays are intrinsic criticisms of U.S. journalism.

Original on IPS site

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