Reel Life

Neal Gabler alerts the masses to the proliferation of entertainment in his book Life the Movie

Not such a long time ago the evening newscasts featured such serious, sober characters as Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, Howard K. Smith and Harry Reasoner, Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid. They read the news of the day each evening as if it were somber, weighty business. There was scarcely a chuckle on the evening news. Occasionally, on CBS, Charles Kuralt would report from somewhere in America's hinterlands with "human interest" stories, tales of social oddities or examples of the uncommon courage of common people. Kuralt could be wry with his observations but was always respectful of his subjects.

That was about it as far as light stuff on the evening news was concerned. Huntley looked as if he carried the burden of the news he reported, especially as the Vietnam War dragged on with its grim weekly death tolls. Sevareid, silver-haired, dour, gave a weekly editorial commentary on CBS. He seemed so formidable to the dirty tricksters of the Nixon administration -- who placed reporters at CBS such as Daniel Schorr and Dan Rather on an "enemies list" -- that he was exempted from any nefarious plans because, according to Nixon loyalist H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, "He looked too much like God."

But where the avuncular Cronkite was considered "the most trusted man in America," his successor Dan Rather -- along with fellow news anchors Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw -- are now "media personalities." Where Vietnam played out on the evening news as an increasingly dark and disturbing story, the Persian Gulf War arrived on the nation's television screens -- writes Neal Gabler in his new book Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality (Knopf, 303 pages, $25) -- with each network providing "a logo and a musical signature, undoubtedly making this the first war introduced by a theme song." There were title cards: "Crisis in the Gulf" (CNN and ABC), "War in the Gulf" (CBS), "America at War" (NBC). "As if that weren't enough," writes Gabler, "on-site reporters like CNN's Peter Arnett and NBC's Arthur Kent were instantly transformed into stars. The handsome, youthful Kent, flinching and wincing at the detonations of the Russian Scud missiles Iraq fired at Israel, even won the moniker 'Scud stud.' As the Nation quipped, 'General Sherman had it all wrong. War ain't hell -- it's entertainment.'"

And it is entertainment, Gabler argues, that has changed not only the evening news, but life itself. "I was on Charlie Brennan (of radio station KMOX, 1120 AM) this morning," he says during an interview with the RFT while in town to promote Life the Movie, "and he said that when Elvis Presley died it was the 17th story on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Today it would be the first 25 minutes of the broadcast. We've changed rapidly. We're talking about roughly 20 years that we've learned to go on this shift where entertainment pervades everything and marginalizes everything. I'm not a cultural conservative, but I do have a concern, and that concern is not about conventional entertainment, but as the media become more pervasive and sophisticated, as entertainment learns to extend its tentacles into more and more areas, what's left?"

Where serious news delivered the downcast Huntley and the all-knowing Sevareid, entertainment provides sensations: Connie Chung coaxing the word "bitch" out of Newt Gingrich's mom, the Lewinsky-Tripp tapes, a man dying as a result of Jack Kevorkian's injection.

Marx had it wrong, Gabler argues -- it is entertainment, not religion, that is the opiate of the masses.

And as an opiate, we the people are addicted to entertainment, which -- in a series of broad dialectics set up by Gabler in Life the Movie -- creates an appetite for the lightness of personality at the expense of the stolidity of character, the filtered glow of artifice over authenticity's natural light, even, in another demarcation Gabler makes at the end of the book, happiness over humanness.

Gabler's two previous books were also about the relationship between media and society: An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood and Walter Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity. How did these books lead to this current volume on contemporary culture?

"All three of my books deal with the relationship between outsiders and insiders," Gabler explains. "It's a subject that clearly resonates with me a great deal. We've got this establishment culture, and the rest of us who aren't part of it are either having to fight it or accommodate ourselves to it. An Empire of Their Own is about a group of individuals who built their own America because they couldn't enter the American establishment. Winchell was about a guy who wanted to raze the establishment because they wouldn't let him in.

"This book is a larger social history of how all Americans, the mass of Americans, collaborated to create a dominant culture that would be everything that the elites hated -- and then discusses the ramifications of that.

"So they're related on that level, but they're related on another level, too. All three books are also about self-presentation and image. Clearly the moguls try and create their own lives after the fashion of what they assume real Americans would be. Winchell was very self-conscious about being Winchell. I have that wonderful story that I was told where Winchell's brother-in-law says, 'My God, you wear the same damn suit every day. You're a multimillionaire; why do you do it?' Winchell goes to the closet and opens it up, and there are 12 identical suits. This is the uniform to be Walter Winchell.

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