I was talking to a 20th Century Fox publicist last week about Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, and the conversation wasn't about its alleged anti-Semitism or the way it picks on America's rubes and racists. No, I was wondering if actor/co-writer Sacha Baron Cohen was actually going to do interviews as himself rather than in character, as he's been doing for the past several months. The publicist wanted to know why I asked, and I responded that interviewing Cohen as Borat held absolutely no interest for me.
"It's shtick," I said. "And as a journalist, I'm not interested in promoting shtick. I'd really like to know why he chose Kazakhstan as Borat's home, why all the Jewish stuff is in the film and if he thinks that in many cases, the object of his satire is akin to shooting fish in a barrel."
Said flack was amazed I wasn't interested in a Borat interview; everyone else was dying to query the Kazakh buffoon. (If you don't believe me, read this. And watch a Borat "press conference" here). Which leads to my point: the toadying, craven entertainment press once again shows how it might as well be in the pay of the studios. Someone once said that the term "entertainment journalism" is an oxymoron, and these days, that's more often true than not. The competition for "stories" (I use this term loosely; it's really just a feeding frenzy for access) has become so intense that just about everyone has become a suckup.
Here's the thing: the film industry is a multi-billion dollar enterprise with a global reach. The images it puts out not only define how we see ourselves, but how others see us. Not that you'd know this from most entertainment "reporting," which is obsessed with celebrity, box-office gross and the vapid coming and goings of studio heads and power agents.
Back in the early '80s, when I broke in as a stringer for the Los Angeles Times, things were a lot different. The entertainment section ran stories about how the Mob was reaping millions from Deep Throat; the ways in which the cocaine epidemic was affecting Hollywood; and how the paranoid M.I.A. movies of the period (Rambo and all those cheesy Chuck Norris flicks) were presenting a distorted image of the Vietnam War's aftermath.
Can you imagine stories like those in any arts section in 2006? It's not just that editors and writers seem to be uninterested in real reporting (under the mistaken assumption that readers don't care), there's also the fact that slowly but surely, they've allowed the PR machine to dictate what they write, and even how it gets played.
Don't believe me? Just check out the outlets who will willingly sign legal documents stating that the piece being written, or the photo being shot, can only show up in the publication, Web site, etc. that the interview was scheduled for. In other words: You want the interview, you have to promise you won't sell it to another outlet. You want the photo, you have no resale or syndication rights. In some cases, you have to promise specific placement before you get the access you want.
I don't know of any other beat reporters -- whether they're covering sports, politics, business or what-have-you -- who are forced to sign away their rights. But on the entertainment scene, well, you want disheartening, check out any junket where the Webbies, TV stations, second-tier papers and other alleged journalists blithely troop up to the sign-in table and happily affix their John Hancocks to these documents. It's truly, utterly disgusting (don't even get me started on the sycophantic autograph-seekers, picture-takers and gift bag freebie sluts).
Luckily, I work mostly for outlets who refuse this sort of blackmail. And even though their stance has occasionally cost them stories they haven't backed down. In the last several months, I've had two run-ins of this sort: an interview with a B-level actor was cancelled when the paper I was writing for refused to guarantee a cover, and photos of a 20-year-old semi-unknown were not allowed when the same publication would not sign away their rights. Good for them; it's nice to know there are still some papers with ethical standards.
Which leads me back to Borat. Interviewing an actor in character has as much relationship to real reporting as the Oakland Raiders do to a good football team. It's blatantly crawling up the ass of the studio and giving it a big rimjob. You want to do it? Great. Have a fine time. But don't ever call yourself a reporter, my friend.
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http://www.thereeler.com/features/beat_the_press_borat.php Features October 24, 2006 Beat the Press The Borat media frenzy begs the question: Will reporters ever quit rolling over for studios? By Lewis Beale I was talking to a 20th Century Fox public... [Read More]