Welcome to the Fishbowl

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I am not a celebrity, nor do I have any ambition to become one. Of course I’d like to become a wildly successful playwright whose plays are continuously showing around the world 24-7. But how many of those can you name who aren’t Neil Simon? Mostly I like to try to do good work and take that wherever it leads me.

I mention the topic because three “celebrities” have made the front page of the tabloids lately, three men whose work I’ve appreciated for many, many years. “Trust the art, not the artist” is a motto to live by, especially in this age when “celebrity” and “talent” rarely cross paths. Honestly I care about the product, and I have very little patience for the cult of personality surrounding most actors, directors and singers. To say I “know” someone because of a character they’ve played or a novel they’ve written is at best delusional and at worst dangerously misguided. Yet we all seem to know so much about the people who entertain us, and there seems to be an unending desire to consume more and more, to lay them bare and swallow them up and, ultimately, bring them down a peg.

The three men I’m speaking of are Philip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Allen and most recently Alec Baldwin. Very different men with very different talents, united in my mind by the fact that I almost always found them interesting to watch and supremely good at what they did. One of them is dead of a drug overdose, another has had his reputation forever tainted and the other is so fed up with the paparazzi merry-go-round that he declared an end to his public life.

I don’t pretend to know what demons drove Hoffman, or what Woody did or didn’t do, or whether Baldwin really used an anti-gay slur when he was chasing a persistent reporter. I wasn’t there. I don’t know any of the parties involved. What I do know is that an AWFUL LOT of people who also weren’t there have an AWFUL LOT of opinions about what happened. And in the reactionary fishbowl we call America, what we think happened and what really happened are often confused. We get our messages in quick flashing headlines and tweets, encapsulated in 140 words or less. The sources for these messages have become less and less reliable, and more and more urgent to capture our attention. “Reporting” has become “scandal mongering”, and it’s only getting worse.

I saw a documentary recently about the Watergate reporters Woodward and Bernstein, about whom was made the classic journalistic triumph film “All the President’s Men”. The story of how these two men methodically and rationally connected the dots to a conspiracy that ultimately led to the resignation of a President is riveting stuff. But what stands out for my purposes here is how careful they were. They knew the consequences of what they were doing, and so they (and their editor) insisted on two sources for every item of news, and they made judgments about the veracity of those sources. In other words, they acted in a sober, responsible manner, with the goal of ultimately revealing the truth behind this Watergate break-in and who knew about it when.

The documentary interviewed a current editor and asked him what would happen if the story broke today. He said it would be tweeted around the world immediately, and the worst would be assumed about the Republican’s motives instantly. All the parties involved would immediately assume a bunker mentality and make sure they got their stories straight. There would be a spinned response to the report and an effort by those involved to deny further information to leak. All this would happen in the space of a day, and ultimately the in-depth reporting that Woodward and Bernstein did over several months with phone calls and interviews would never happen.

Is this what journalism has evolved into? Is “first” more important than “thorough” or even “factual”? The answer to that question, of course, is yes. In the age of instant pictures on cell phones and instant video on YouTube and instant messages on Twitter, instant news is what we seem to crave. Where it comes from and how it is procured seem immaterial. If someone makes an unsubstantiated claim, that’s news. If someone posts an opinion about, oh, anything they feel like having an opinion about, that’s news. Innuendo? That’s now called “speculation” and it doesn’t need to be corroborated. And if a reporter sticks a camera in the face of a celebrity’s child and jostles his wife, then films the celebrity flipping out, guess what? He’s made news.

I know the impulse is to say boo-hoo, poor rich celebrities who have to deal with autograph hounds and paparazzi, cry me a river. OK, I get that. But how far does that go? Would you want people writing stories about your drug habit, and how you’ve left your children fatherless? Would you want people dredging up a case of your alleged sexual misconduct that was dismissed by the police fifteen years ago? Would you want someone whose only motive is to besmirch your character to publicly label you a homophobe?

Like I said, I wasn’t there and I don’t know what really happened. But I know that the sources for “news”, especially when it comes to people in the public eye, has become ever more questionable. Their motives are suspect and their methods are borderline illegal (and over-the-line immoral). And the scariest thing is that no one seems to mind.

For the record, although I have seen the horrifying effects of drug addiction up close, I think the only people who can stand in judgment of Hoffman are his family. And although I am staunchly a supporter of victim’s rights and I abhor the use of homosexual slurs, I don’t think Woody Allen molested anybody and I don’t believe Alec Baldwin is homophobic.  Just my opinion, I know, and aren’t we more than cluttered up with those. But I base my opinion on the lack of reliable sources.

I think we’re cluttered up with those too.

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    • Mike
    • February 25th, 2014

    You need to send this on to a publication.

  1. Thanks Fritz.

    • kae
    • March 1st, 2014

    I agree with every word, and your essay is excellent. I have a tendency to read the public’s comments to internet articles and it’s scary how many people are so intransigently misinformed about Woody Allen’s relationship with Mia Farrow and her children with Andre Previn. Few people seem upset that Ronan Farrow might be Frank Sinatra’s son, which would mean that Mia cheated on, lied to, and took child support money from Allen for many years. Yet Allen is the bad guy. Thank goodness he has been able to make films throughout the years despite his reputation. Certainly I don’t know the facts of the case, but we all are supposed to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. K xxx

    • Anonymous
    • March 1st, 2014

    I agree Kae. We’ve become an extremely judge-first-ask-question-later society. I don’t know whether it’s laziness or willful ignorance.

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