Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Entertaining Notions on the Borders

My preparation for a March interview with playwright Theresa Rebeck came the morning after a dramatic prime time news show about Narco violence. Something about the CNN Special Report, which covered the murder of a Texas lawman by Mexican drug traffickers, resonated as I learned of Rebeck’s ‘Our House,' opening at Playwrights Horizons on June 9.

The subject at hand was ‘Mauritius,’ her most popular play to date, at the Pasadena Playhouse. But reading that ‘Our House,’ which premiered in January 2008 at Denver Center Theatre, asks, “Are news and entertainment interchangeable?” recalled my reaction to the Anderson Cooper program. Not being a regular viewer, I had been surprised by the level to which he and his team wrapped their coverage with a clear, though muted, sensationalism. While this kind of 'news' is not news, the preference for the language and imagery of violence – shrouded corpses, shadowy identity-protected interviewees – and disinterest in reasoned discussion of the issues behind it, was stunning. Brief, perfunctory moments of talking head stats were allotted to how America's voracious appetite for drugs fuels the international drug economy. That message would fall to Secretary Clinton the following week, and President Obama this month, to make.

Entertainment is a useful addition to any communication. Try plowing through academic writing if you disagree. In reporting, however, it’s best kept as sweetener. Junk journalism on television is as dangerous to American health as junk food in school cafeterias.

Much of Rebeck's work aims to strike the right balance: “I’m trying to create art that entertains.” While finding that dividing line is up to each artist and viewer, the breaking point between the two lies somewhere along the stretch where meaning is lost in fluff. It isn't that art has to be true. Far from it. Novelist John Barth suggested art can be truer than fact. He once had a character describe his stories as “too important to be lies. Fictions, maybe – but truer than fact.”

The popularity of theater and journalism are both being tested in the current economy. Television, where a majority of people get both their entertainment and their news, offers entertainment masquerading as "reality," and real news blurred by theatricality. The preference for this altered state may have more to do with the rising death count of newspapers than the free home delivery offered by the Internet. The Internet, which offers more opinion that anything, is just picking up where television started.

And, that, getting back to Rebeck's concerns in 'Our House,' rewards reporters who are showmen rather than ‘regulators.’ The defanging of financial regulators is much more reversable than will be the grind of keeping City Halls, school boards, and legislators in check through regular news coverage. The current ‘Atlantic’ suggests that “the Internet trains readers to consume news in ever-smaller bites. This is a disaster for newspapers and magazines. If you're not covering your state delegation in D.C., or the state legislature back home, or the city council, bad things are going to happen, undiscovered.”

But as Cooper's tone and Rebeck's play reveal, these things have already happened. News is entertainment. Want something more insidious? Try news as religion. We can already see this creeping in at the borders of TV's reporter-punditry. FOX news, which Charlie Brooker jokes “generally leans more to the right than a man who’s just had his right leg blown off,” has a number of these "news anchors" putting both bully and pulpit in their nightly “bully pulpit.” TIME Magazine's James Poniewozik cited Glenn Beck as a key voice in the shouting match.

“Beck embraces fear," he wrote of Beck's appeal. "Fear of what? Take your pick. . . . That fat cats and bureaucratic 'bloodsuckers' are plundering your future. That Mexico will collapse and chaos will pour over the border. That America believes too little in God and too much in global warming.”

Here's to keeping our house in order: leave the news to journalists, the drama to dramatists, and the fire and brimstone to the preachers.

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION. Molly Ward, center, as Jennifer in the Denver Center Theatre Company world premiere production of Our House (Terry Shapiro), surrounded by Anderson Cooper, Julie Chen on 'Big Brother,' Final front page in Denver, Glenn Beck.