1) The Media and Truth
2) How Truth is Manipulated by the Media
3) Frontline Essay
The Media and Truth
Philosopher Michel Foucault once said ‘Truth is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint’. This idea provides the deepest foundations today of the media’s representation of the truth. Often perceived as irrefutable fact, the truth has been morphed and shaped by those who control it into what they deem as most interesting and profitable. In the real world and that of tabloid journalism the truth is malleable and can be distorted, selective and sacrificed for ulterior motives by media, private institutions and government for social, political and economic gain. The Frontline episodes Smaller Fish to Fry and Add Sex and Stir, as well as the documentary Race: The power of an allusion and the Media watch report Gangland links or media murder? - asks us to think about the media’s power, influence, purpose and motivation for its representations of ‘truth’.
As television, a medium which requires less thought, appeals to our emotions and visceral regions rather than to our minds, is one where visual material is imperative for commercial success. ‘A pub brawl in Manly is better than a massacre of millions if you have pictures’, is the way in which Brian extols the importance of footage, footage which can manipulate people by creating unfounded emotional responses. In Smaller Fish to Fry, an observer learns that small scale rip-offs are soft targets for tabloid sensationalist journalism directed at the masses because they are easy to identify with and provide plenty of good visuals with hidden cameras whilst ‘Larger fish’ such as banks, corporations and institutions escape examination because the potential loss of advertising dollars. This hidden bias means that the ‘truth’ shown on commercial current affairs programs has a fairly limited scope. It is much safer to run stories attacking small businesses and individuals because they won’t have the financial capacity to challenge the program.
There are many factors which militate against the free and open transfer of information in society. Government, especially a democratic one depends on free, open and enlightening media outlets to inform the public. Two factors counter this; governments rather than be transparent, hide their mistakes and attempt to extol their successes. Brooke’s Interview with the Prime Minister, throughout SFTF a parallel plot runs to reinforce the issue of bias in the media. Brooke and Emma are organizing an interview with the Prime Minister. Selectivity and bias are evident in the scenes in which they prepare for the interview. His image as the country’s leader can not be undermined by tough or controversial questions asked by a current affairs reporter. “Aren’t you even slightly tempted to make it a hard-hitting interview?” “No…you don’t get ahead by pissing people off…” Brooke understands that her career will be advantaged if she always tries to keep those in positions of power on her side, even if that means compromising standards, being dishonest and manipulating others.
It becomes clear in Smaller Fish to Fry that the distortion of truth is not only limited to media outlets, but present in all sectors of society including the ‘larger fish’ - government. The fabrication of fact by government is exposed through the documentary series Race: The Power of an illusion, as Larry Adelman (producer) set out to investigate the modern idea of ‘race’. The series highlights that through ‘science’ disguised as the truth, the American Government defended slavery as a result of a genetic difference between White men and Negro slaves. America used ‘scientific racism’, claims of scientific conclusion, from ‘a a veneer of science to support its racist paradigm. The project undertaken of attributing performance and behaviour to racial difference in mental and physical state came in handy when those in power needed to explain and justify systems of racial ascendance, class, and social neglect. These fabricated facts were re-enforced so much, that it became a 'common sense' belief of white superiority and for hundreds of year’s pervaded society. The manipulation of truth was able to be supported by scientific evidence and hence ‘justified’ anti-democratic actions which were institutionalised within government, law and society.
The ethical issues such as chequebook journalism, invasion of privacy and market philosophy of ratings are explored throughout frontline. Likewise, Media Watch, Australia 's leading forum for media analysis and comment elucidates misrepresentation and manipulation of truth by the media. Media Watch’s presenter Liz Jackson in report Gangland links or media murder? deconstructs the case of suburban lawyer David Robinson in the which claims that the Herald Sun through its reporter - John Ferguson blatantly fabricated parts of a report which claims Mr. Robinson had fallen out several years ago with a interstate drug lord. Media Watch exposes the Herald Sun’s mindless attempt to sensationalise a serious issue through it portrayal of hardened gangsters killing suburban lawyer David Robinson. This feeble link was dismissed immediately by the Victoria Police. However, The Herald Sun continued the story, presumably to increase excitement revolving around the case. The Herald Sun’s deliberate distortion of the truth is used in order to build their reputation and create hype around the case is like that of Frontline in Add Sex and Stir however only adds to the distress to the family of Mr. Robinson as a result of the ‘unfounded allegations’. The insensitivity of the media is also reflected in The Siege the exploitation of the gunman’s mother’s, Mrs Forbes, private grief in the pursuit of ratings by Brooke (coined Lady Macbeth by her co-workers) while she attempts to milk Mrs. Forbes’ distress for a more appealing vision to the public.
This unscrupulous search for ratings is one of the driving forces that cause editorial integrity and the truth to be skewed in an effort to make material much more attractive to viewers. In Add Sex and Stir. The title itself is a mocking ‘ancient recipe’, a metaphor for the blatant sensationalisation of news for ratings and commercial gain. When Brian hears about the scandal involving allegations of lesbians in women’s cricket he abandons his reluctance to do stories on women’s sport and does a full fabricated expose despite its devastating effect on the game.
Brian tells Brooke to set up an interview with the player and ‘Once you’ve spoken to her, bury her…just get her out of circulation.’ Clearly Brian’s motivation here is to ensure ‘Frontline’ has an exclusive interview – with the woman ‘out of circulation’, Brooke frequently doctors the footage by rerecording her questions after the responder has left. Distorting the truth by taking things out of context is a common strategy of media reports. Brooke decides to insert an altered question in order to completely sensationalise and distort Alison’s story. She asks, ‘How many of them were gay?’ to cut into Alison’s original response of ‘Most of them’. The verisimilitude of the ‘re-enactment’ is a gross misrepresentation of the ‘truth’, which the observer learns that the player was dropped not because she was lesbian but because she was in poor form. The fabrication of footage emphasises the importance of visuals in current affair programs. A recurring theme also in smaller fish and playing the ego. ‘You reported half the story. You beat up the rest.’ Teresa is showing the way in which selectivity in reporting can distort the truth. Brooke only told one side of the story without questioning what may have motivated such a telling in the first place.
Marty explains how paranoid he is about taking a holiday in case he loses his job on ‘Frontline.’ The shallow nature of the industry is reinforced when Emma attempts to persuade Marty that people in the office would support him, but struggles to come up with anybody who is both loyal and influential. The issue of professional dishonesty is evident again when Emma plots with Marty to ensure the ‘lesbians in sport’ story is dropped. Marty lies to Brian about the sexuality of a famous Australian cricketer. Brian is more than willing to sacrifice the career of a female sportsperson but will not do the same for a male sporting ‘hero.’ His sexism shapes the truth in this episode but also reflects a sexism that exists in Australian society as a whole. Emma has to behave in an unethical way in order to prevent the unethical nature of the story from burgeoning.
We can see that in today’s world truth is often sacrificed on the altar of commercial interests so that it becomes manipulated, distorted and ineffectual as an informative means of enlightenment. We as citizens are short-changed by entertainment, excitement and titillation but very little substance by which to make sense of the world around us. Our society is diminished by this dumbing down process.
2) How Truth is Manipulated by the Media
Truth is an abstract concept that has plagued scholars and philosophers since the very roots of humanity. Its fluid and subjective nature have made it difficult for us to determine what an absolute truth is. Indeed Aristotle once wrote “Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth.”. That reverence has endured as we are still unable to objectify it, its existence remaining a lingering enigma. Today we are constantly being questioned about the truth and how we perceive the world. How can we know the absolute truth from others’ recounts? We can’t. The media is the best example of how ‘the truth’ is manipulated to present a particular point of view. We can only attempt to disentangle the mess of blather around the facts, thereby forming our own opinions of what indeed the real truth is.
The television series Frontline unashamedly employs satire to send-up current affairs programs such as Today Tonight, 60 Minutes and A Current Affair. What is exposed is that TV programs are not interested in simply telling the truth. Their interest is in sensationalising the facts in order to achieve the best possible ratings figures – regardless of the subsequent representational compromises that must be made.
In the episode “The Siege”, misrepresentation of scenarios by the media is parodied in Marty’s report from ‘the scene’ of the holdup. In order to heighten the sense of tension, Marty and Mike draw parallels between the siege and a battlefront – Marty wears a flak jacket, crouches down low to the ground, and reports in a low, discreet voice, reporting that they have been “at the farmhouse since the early hours of [the] morning”. Even this phrase is a subtle coercing of our minds. Without indicating any exact time frame, Marty alludes that the team has been at the scene for a long time, reasserting their commitment to bringing the news, first hand, to the viewer – or so they say. We of course know that the real agenda is gaining the audience’s trust in them, ultimately resulting in better ratings. After Marty’s report, Mike suggests hyperbolically that “there may be a Rambo situation at hand”, taking Marty’s situation grossly out of proportion in comparing it with a gun-toting war movie. In reality, Marty is in no likely danger as he is outside the 5km exclusion zone put in place by the police. However these delicate distortions create edge-of-your-seat tension, keeping the audience glued to their screens. This parody explores the lengths to which the media will go to get “a good story” and the moral dilemmas which are often discarded along the way. In this case, ratings are more important to the Frontline team than considering the lives they are putting at risk.
Media misrepresentation is again evident in the episode “We Ain’t Got Dames”. Here the Frontline team is focused on attracting more female viewers, and deploys a Mike Moore promotional ad, presenting him as a stylish, sensitive man exuding all the qualities women are looking for. The juxtaposition between this caricature and the off-screen personality we are see illustrates the mendacity of the media by making a mockery of the clichéd façades we see on TV. Also in this episode, Mike’s story about the exploitation of factory workers is tampered with to produce a story about the fashion industry. The irony here is that the same initial footage is used to create a completely different story with no regard for the moral concerns involved. Just like our real-life media, stories of true social concern are for disposed of for “consumer interest” stories.
The episode “Playing the Ego Card” highlights the fact that the media, just like any other industry, involves competition. The effects of this competition not only involve the reporters, but also the viewers, as its influence trickles down to our TV screens. In this episode, the competition between Mike and Brooke brings Mike to go to Bouganville in an attempt to produce reports that will increase his workplace and public credibility. Satire is used to highlight his incompetence in investigative skills, which fails him miserably. Even his attempts to fabricate a scene result in a comedy of errors as a series of comic miscommunications spews forth. Illustrated here is the pretentious eloquence presented by current affairs hosts, and our credulity in believing them.
Another text that explores this artificiality is a mock-ad produced by the ABC TV program CNNNN, “Esteem Personal Appraisal”. It is an ad for a mock-company by the name of “Esteem Personal Appraisal”. Using satire, the ad ridicules cosmetics and hair care companies’ ads as well as telemarketing programs. The opening phrase “At Esteem, we know that imperfections are more than skin-deep” plays on cliché to set the satirical tone of the text. The spokeswoman holds a notepad while wearing a white lab coat and glasses, presenting knowledgeable, authoritative figure, while soothing music plays in the background to create an artificially comforting environment. We are then shown vision of a patient undergoing their ‘treatment’ while being supervised by ‘trustworthy’ figures – once again – in white lab coats and glasses, and doodling on notepads. Overlaid are images of computer interfaces making calculations. Like in many other telemarketing ads, the purpose is not to provide factual figures, but to fabricate the image of a scientifically-proven treatment. Various commercial names are also overlaid with “TM” after each of them, once again illustrating how companies use trademarks to increase superficial integrity. The humour in this is created by the subscript “*patent pending for phrase ‘patent pending’” – once again highlighting the hollowness of the technical jargon commonly employed. Obscure prattle such as “new personal value appraisal technology”, “(Big A)ppraisal TM” and “the most compatobiotic products for your flaws” is used to demonstrate the capriciousness of language and how it can be moulded to delude us into believing anything. After this montage, a computer generated image is flashed: “allowing you to break through the beauty barrier!”. Of course, this means absolutely nothing! The effect is the parody of yet another specious technique used by the media to bend the truth. The ad concludes with a hoard of concoctions dumped on the patient This hyperbole accentuates our reliance upon technology and medical substances to fix everything, and our credulity in being so easily manipulated by the media. A cheesy smile and the clichéd pun “Esteem, because you need it”, sums up this farce – a far cry from the truth.
A farce that presents itself every day is the world of politics. In Kerry-Anne Walsh’s article “In full truth, it’s yadda yadda yadda to the nth degree”, published in the Sun-Herald on 16/07/06, she examines the ostentation of Australian political language, particularly in light of the recent quarrelling between John Howard and Peter Costello. Walsh employs overstatement in “the spectacular doublespeak that characterized the verbal shadow boxing [between the two]” to accentuate the ridiculous lack of substance in any of their statements. She follows up with quotes from each of them illustrating the emptiness of their declarations: “I will remain leader for as long as the party wants me to, and it is in the best interest of the party that I do so.” (John Howard). What sounds like an intelligent statement is shown to be a fallacious dressing of insubstantiality, not only through mordent sarcasm, but also through the use of rhetorical questions such as “what is to be made of Costello’s mutterings?”. This forces us, the responder, to think about what is being said. What is he really saying? The article finishes with an intertextual reference that perfectly sums up political lingo:
“…when politicians make solemn pronouncements about the “full truth” that is no such thing, it demands a new interpretation.
Over to you, Watson.”
Watson is of course Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick. It seems you need to just about be a detective to gather any substance from in between the “no comment” and “the full truth”.
These three texts provide us with examples of how the truth is twisted, not only by the media but by every individual, in order to put their proverbial noses in front of the pack. Friedrich Nietzsche once stated that “there are no facts, only interpretations”. In this day and age it is difficult to differentiate between the two, if they indeed exist. However it is our duty to make our own educated opinions about the status quo. Maybe one day we will stand by one of John Howard’s declarations – (before he became prime minister)
“…truth is absolute, truth is supreme, truth is never disposable in national political life.”
The search goes on.
In the words of Chris Masters, “There are no absolute truths. Everything we recount is coloured by the language chosen, the tone, the context and the selection and organisation of detail”. Master’s statement is certainly true about the modern ‘infotainment’ industry where the truth is edited, manipulated and fabricated by the media for image, ratings and profit. The nature of ‘truth’ has become an increasingly prevalent issue in our modern society due to its inherent manipulation by the anonymous entities who control it. Through the satirical series ‘Frontline’ by Rob Sitch et.al, the SMH article ‘False Tart’ by Sue Javes and the comic strip ‘Non Sequitur’ by Wiley, the concept of the ‘truth’ is explored, as is the notion that it is never presented in its pure and simplest form.
Through its satirical focus on today’s media entities, the television series Frontline considers the fickle nature of truth and the various ways in which it is manipulated in our modern society. A send-up of current affairs programs such as ‘A Current Affair’ and ‘Sixty Minutes’, Frontline allows viewers a clear insight into the range of unscrupulous methods employed by media networks to package their stories, essentially emphasising that ‘the truth’ is, in reality, a commodity pitched at particular demographics for ratings success. As a satire it shamelessly imitates, parodies, subverts, exaggerates and ridicules the modern ‘infotainment’ industry. From the opening montage with its rapid upbeat urgent music, through to its high packed melodramatic, often ironic endings, to the shuffling of papers and the pensive “hmmm…” the Frontline series creates a sense of verisimilitude, instilling a certain atmosphere of ‘truth’, also partly achieved by its documentary style use of hand held cameras. However, it is only the exposure of the back room scenes by Rob Sitch et.al. that reveal a gentle mockery of the clichéd artificiality of the façade, the hollowness of the pretence.
The media often fabricate the ‘truth’, sensationalising it to appeal to the mindless masses. Stories are frequently presented out of context and exaggerated resulting in the ‘truth’ becoming entertainment, a notion satirised humourously by the Frontline episode “Add Sex and Stir”(ASS). In it, Brooke pursues a story of an unfair dismissal of a sportswoman and distorts it into a “Lezos in sport story”. The story is then aired along with a raunchy re-enactment in the showers, filmed with soft filtered lenses and emotive language -“the girl next door who everyone loved”, thus adding a ‘visual’ sexual aspect to the story. The ‘sexing up’ of the story completely twisted the truth, yet got the desired ratings and this serves to highlight the media’s audacity in manipulating the ‘truth’ for their own ulterior motives.
ASS focuses on the mutual connection between sex and the media that is becoming increasingly prominent, and we can find a modern example of this in Sue Javes article “False Tart” (2nd July SMH). The article describes how 2UE’s Stan Zemanek secretly employed a professional actor, Bryan Wiseman, “to play some of his more outrageous callers”, such as the rich snob ‘Barbara’, and a seductress ‘Tanya’. The bogus calls got people listening and calling in, and goes to show how ‘spicing’ up stories are done purely for the pursuit of higher ratings.
Zemanek’s station is in fact, “breaching the radio industry’s code of conduct clause 2.2” which states that the radio license “must ensure that viewpoints are not misrepresented”. However, it seems that very few media entities follow such rules because, as Brian puts it, “Sport rates, sex rates, put the two together, you’ve got dynamite”. Plain news events can be predictable, flat and boring, so tabloid and infotainment frequently resort to spicing up the events with spectacular footage, beat-up stories and tacky, sleazy and cheap dramatic conflict. As Brian tells Marty, three things television needs is “good vision, good vision and good vision” and this idea is parodied humourously by the Frontline team in ASS.
Chris Masters also once said, “Truth is a commodity. It can be used to liberate a public from ignorance and prejudice. It can also be used to make money.” The episode “Smaller Fish to Fry” (SFTF) ideally illustrates this statement, showing us how the ‘truth’ could have liberated the public from ignorance, but is ultimately suppressed and distorted for financial gain. The episode depicts current affairs shows as keen to target the “small fish” such as “dodgy fridge repairmen”; while overlooking the “big fish” who have financial ties to the network. The power of large corporations and powerful media moguls is emphasised by the way Mike is blackmailed into dropping the merchant bank fraud story, as “half the network is on borrowed funds”.
SFTF explores the media’s failure to act as society’s ‘moral watch dog’ as does the series of cartoons called “Non Sequitur” by Wily (SMH May 04). Many current affairs shows tend to take stories at ‘face value’, often failing to look deeper into the issues, rather simply presenting the stories as they are fed to them and essentially becoming mere “mouthpieces” for large corporations, government or powerful monopolised media barons. Just like Frontline does in SFTF, ‘Non Sequitur’ uses satire to mock this moral irresponsibility of the media.
The cartoon features a news reporter who reluctantly parrots the news as scripted, but goes on to defy his superiors by adding an ironic, evaluative postscript, “pre-packaged…unquestioned, unscrutinised, to keep you informed just the way the government likes it.” This contradicts the very purpose of news and current affairs shows, as they should be presenting unbiased and independent opinions, not just government propaganda. The newsreader complains, “a free society depends on…media…a watchdog!” an ironic statement seeing as he is put in a cage for choosing to voice his opinion. Similarly, Frontline’s Mike Moore wanted to reveal the truth behind the bank fraud, in SFTF, but was ‘caged’ by his producers and blackmailed into dropping the story. This also alludes to another prevailing issue regarding the media, the integrity of the journalists. The dilemma that journalists face in pursuing their careers with integrity while serving concentrated powerful media moguls, have resulted in hard hitting rigorous investigative journalism becoming the exception rather than the rule.
Wherever possible, the media will try to whip up hysteria and create a state of frenzy to appeal to the widest audience and maximise ratings. Often an alarmist, provocative or inflammatory approach is taken, and this can be explicitly seen in the Frontline episode ‘The Siege’ (TS) where the team sensationalise a hostage situation, representing it as a dangerous and frightening “Rambo situation”. Such a manipulation is endorsed through Marty’s appearance at the scene, crouching down in flack jacket and speaking to Mike in a hushed tone of voice to “make it look like (he’s) in danger”, even though he is 5km from the farmhouse. He reports with highly emotive language, “the very real dangers”, and fabricated facts – “a former war veteran”, thereby dramatising the entire ordeal. The fact that they breach the “Media Code of Ethics” (1996), which states that “At times of grief or trauma…never harass…never exploit a person’s vulnerability”, (Brook Vandenberg interviewing the gunman’s mother) doesn’t worry the Frontline team, as they go on to jeopardise peoples lives for ratings. Though the team was widely criticised for its irresponsibility, it got the show “the highest ratings in years” and in this way, Frontline recognises the possible undesirability of reality for current affairs audiences. Ultimately, the episodes of Frontline, along with the texts ‘False Tart’ and ‘Non sequitur’ suggest that there is by no means an absolute ‘truth’ in today’s society. In the world of tabloid journalism, the ‘truth’ is malleable and can be manipulated, distorted, selective and sacrificed for ulterior motives. Each text highlights to different extents, the inherent manipulation of the ‘truth’ by the media and emphasises William Blake’s statement that “truth told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent”. In the words of Chris Masters, “One must constantly be on the lookout for alternative truths”.
Wherever possible, the media will try to whip up hysteria and create a state of frenzy to appeal to the widest audience and maximise ratings. Often an alarmist, provocative or inflammatory approach is taken, and this can be explicitly seen in the Frontline episode ‘The Siege’ (TS) where the team sensationalise a hostage situation, representing it as a dangerous and frightening “Rambo situation”. Such a manipulation is endorsed through Marty’s appearance at the scene, crouching down in flack jacket and speaking to Mike in a hushed tone of voice to “make it look like (he’s) in danger”, even though he is 5km from the farmhouse. He reports with highly emotive language, “the very real dangers”, and fabricated facts – “a former war veteran”, thereby dramatising the entire ordeal. The fact that they breach the “Media Code of Ethics” (1996), which states that “At times of grief or trauma…never harass…never exploit a person’s vulnerability”, (Brook Vandenberg interviewing the gunman’s mother) doesn’t worry the Frontline team, as they go on to jeopardise peoples lives for ratings. Though the team was widely criticised for its irresponsibility, it got the show “the highest ratings in years” and in this way, Frontline recognises the possible undesirability of reality for current affairs audiences.
Ultimately, the episodes of Frontline, along with the texts ‘False Tart’ and ‘Non sequitur’ suggest that there is by no means an absolute ‘truth’ in today’s society. In the world of tabloid journalism, the ‘truth’ is malleable and can be manipulated, distorted, selective and sacrificed for ulterior motives. Each text highlights to different extents, the inherent manipulation of the ‘truth’ by the media and emphasises William Blake’s statement that “truth told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent”. In the words of Chris Masters, “One must constantly be on the lookout for alternative truths”.
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