A thought experiment: what’s happening in the US, imagine it were cinema. Trump’s declarations, its synchronous causality, the swelling crowds — the phrase, “it’s like a movie” is becoming common place.
If you’re one of the greatest directors alive, this is cinema. Jean-Luc Goddard, who inspired legions of other great directors e.g. Martin Scorsese says:
The cinema is not an art which films life: the cinema is something between art and life.
I, Daniel Blake (2016), Hidden Figures (2016) Jackie (2016) — three films showing at the moment predicated on the notion that fact (the basis, origins and core of story) can often be stranger than fiction. Cinema straddles that circumference between art and life.
Goddard, noted something else highly relevant to the play out of television news and Trump’s movie.
In films, we are trained by the American way of moviemaking to think we must understand and ‘get’ everything right away. But this is not possible. When you eat a potato, you don’t understand each atom of the potato!
The potency of this form of movie making, where we ‘we must understand and ‘get’ everything right away’ primarily instructs television news’ production. It is both a strength and a fundamental achilles. The strength defended by every journalist, J-school grad and professional, is to show. Evidence dear boy. Evidence.
The more epic the event, the more journalism executives find the spectacle irresistible. How do you not show crowds gathering outside airports and streets filling with people protesting Trump’s executive order? How do you resist showing Trump when he was president-elect on the hustings exciting his crowd to skyscraper heights or as president with the revered CIA memorial wall backdrop? In under 3-minutes, the average length of a news package, the viewer must ‘‘get’ everything right away’.
The state of Television Journalism
Television journalism was designed to be this way. In books such as Mike Conway’s The Origins of Television News in America (2009), Facing the Nation with Grace Wyndham Goldie (1977) and Power and Responsibility (1981) we find the seeds of television news. It needed to differentiate itself from cinema’s symbolism and, if generally implicit interpretation was required it became the domain of current affairs — a format often shown once a week.
To the problem then…
Television journalism’s growth in the 1950s coincided with the rejuvenation of its sibling, public relations, and the re-emergence in popularity of one Edward Bernays. It was also at that time that American businesses adopted several of Bernays related methods to increase their wealth, as documented in Hidden Persuaders (1957) by Vance Packard.
Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, is often credited as the father of public relations (he coined the word) and believed he was the foremost authority on ‘mastering the responses of a pliable receptive population’. That’s in the introduction to his book, Propaganda (1928), a slim 167 pages which I’m re-reading again and is definitely worth the read.
In large part, what made Bernays formidable is he understood how journalism and subsequently television journalism worked. He trained as a journalist. He saw its predictability, comprehended the rationale mind of individuals, and the irrational (group thinking) of crowds which emerged from Gustav Le Bon’s The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind.
His 1929 campaign to make women smoking acceptable, linking glamour and smoking with debutantes to women’s emancipation and liberty, is class 101 in PR.
The combination of how predictable television journalism can be, how people play to habit and that when a group gather they can easily adopt irrational behaviour is television news’ achilles. That’s combined with the theory, several indeed, but this is a predominate one called the magic bullet theory in which networks serve up what their audiences want to hear and see. To that too we must factor in that television journalism has developed as a commercial entity; hence a strain developed early between what was necessary for public social good and what was entertaining and would draw audiences.
Now, I have no prior knowledge or comprehension of Trump, but from his campaign to the last few days, and I am aware of what social scientist call “observational equivalence” when it’s difficult to separate the truth from two opposing explanations, but if I could continue with my thought experiment…
The litany of executive orders predictably are filling the news schedules, just as the crowd shots. In that time frame, what was generally missed by news outlets was the appointment of Trump’s chief strategist to the National Security Council, whilst the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the director of national intelligence were relegated to attending meetings when their “responsibilities and expertise” were called upon.
In the PR industry, post Bernays, this looks like a ‘dead cat’. Coined by the UK’s Conservative party strategist Australian Lynton Crosby, it was used effectively during the UK general election, as documented in the Guardian newspaper and the US elections. Simply put, a dead cat is placed on the table during a discussion. The act is so egregious that rationally the conversation stops dead in its tracks. People are fuelled with shock by what’s happened they become irrational and will speak about nothing else.
Some PR specialists might also refer to it as ‘taking out the trash’, or in UK parlance, a good day to bury bad news. The latter is seared in PR history, when an advisor to Blair’s government sent a memo out on September 11, 2001 saying: “It is now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury. Councillors expenses?” She would later apologise.
It’s difficult to see how television journalism can counter ‘dead cats’ and ‘squirrel chasing’ but about a decade ago, I started to come across video journalists who largely combined a different modus operandi to classical reportage. It went against the grain of traditional journalism patterns, but it represented something interesting that made me think about the difference and schism between Renaissance paintings and Impressionists.
One was classical, revered, set by standards approved by the industry. The other was derided, deemed inchoate, and represented a so called unintelligible reality. Impressionism would become the unpredictable. You never knew what you would get, but it was true to the integrity of the artists searching for their truth.
The plot in Disclosure (1994) makes for a meaningful conclusion to this thought experiment. What was the film about and how did Moore’s character intend on ending the career of Douglas’ character?
As we watched, the script came across as explicit and obvious. It was a law suit for sexual harassment, but even when Douglas’ character thought he had won, an email, ‘A Friend’ emerged. All is not as it seems, it said. The unhidden, the implicit, something else existed that required the character to dig deeper otherwise it would be his undoing. A meta story.
Cinema is often about the ‘unhidden’, but just as it crafts scripts that are symbolic or symptomatic of something else, it invites a way thinking beyond seeing the obvious. It looks to similar techniques used by PR in memory studies to construct meaning and imprint indelible memories to affect its audiences, even as subtle as building ’cause and effect’ scenes.
In 2014, the BBC’s Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen whilst accepting his Royal Television Award spoke of an interpretive style of broadcasting that delivered an analysis of information on the spot. He had struggled for 10 years to tell the BBC that this type of analytical (intellectual) reportage was possible. Within the television model, Bowen and his camera man, who uses different lenses to convey meaning, is offering something nuanced from the mainstream.
What if then in a 21st century with journalism getting the run around ,it borrowed from cinema? What if asked to turn the cameras around, they actually did. What if they broke the fourth wall between subject and viewer? What if, once in a while ,they saw the need to recognise ‘dead cats’ and act differently? What if journalists learnt public relations and what their opposite numbers were attempting to pass by them.
A group and I have come to call these practitioners, largely at the moment independent of television, cinema journalists. They are I believe impressionists of the 21st century and could bring something to our interpretation of current events.
David Dunkley Gyimah leads the Digital and Interactive Storytelling LAB at the University of Westminster, where he teaches Cinema Journalism. @viewmagazine