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.
"This book is also about self-presentation in life -- how all of us, both celebrities and those of us who are on the other side of the glass, think about presentation, think about image. The democratization of image management is really one of the themes of this book."
That democratization came, in Gabler's view, with the emergence of mass mediums of entertainment -- cinema and television, which were directed toward a mass audience rather than an elite audience. Movies "created expectations and taught us how to live them," Gabler says.
"Everyone now is embraced by this idea of presentation," he continues. "In Detroit there's a youth gang. It's called the Errol Flynn. Now how in the world did they ever conjure the name the Errol Flynn? Clearly there was some kind of resonant idea for them with Captain Blood.
"So there's the pervasiveness of it. There's also the sophistication of it. We are so sophisticated about self-presentation, and there are so many opportunities to present ourselves and so many different ways in which we can present ourselves -- whether it's clothing and the varieties of clothing we have, or whether it's gestures or whether it's how we use speech or where we live or what car we drive. After all, everything we buy -- virtually -- is advertised as, and ultimately purchased as, a prop. It's a prop for our movie." Or a prop for our life, because these words have become interchangeable, virtually, in Gabler's thesis.
But isn't the idea of persona, of mask, of presentation, the idea that all the world's a stage, a basic part of human life?
"To talk about masks in a general sense," Gabler argues, "to talk about the idea that there is this inner person and this external persona -- which is a tradition of being alive -- is different now because we're all different now in our consciousness of it, in our self-consciousness of it."
Although Gabler resists the label "cultural conservative," the dialectics he constructs -- artifice/authenticity, personality/character, happiness/humanness -- are loaded with moral overtones. He attempts to back away from this tone at the conclusion to his book, offering arguments in support of those who use terms such as "positive illusions" to describe a life (or movie) lived in "postreality."
But Gabler's methodology precludes any such argument. The notion that entertainment has conquered reality suggests a limited notion of how many realities there might be. Is Walter Cronkite on the evening news a presented, inauthentic self, Cronkite on his sailboat in the South Pacific the "real" self? Are we so adolescent that we cannot see the two and accept them as parts of a whole? Is artifice so removed from authenticity? In the larger context called 'nature,' many animals employ mimicry for survival; in human nature, we may be many selves to survive many situations and need not be considered "divided" selves. If reality, character, humanness were made of such solid stuff, there might not be a need for illusion (positive or otherwise), or there might be greater need for it. When F. Scott Fitzgerald writes of "the unreality of reality" in The Great Gatsby -- a novel Gabler understandably makes mention of in regard to Jay Gatz's self-creation -- he's observed something human beings have felt as long as there have been words to describe it.
A figure Gabler leaves out of his study -- because he's not American and Gabler believes the pervasiveness of entertainment to be an American phenomenon -- is Oscar Wilde. Yet Wilde's maxim "Life imitates art" is what Gabler is describing through 244 pages: "Where we had once measured the movies by life, we now measured life by how well it satisfied the narrative expectations created by the movies."
Before fantastic images tantalized the masses on viewing screens, Wilde labeled the moral superiority of "realists" as dull. The extraordinary is compelled to rise from the ordinary, Wilde understood, as does anyone who perceives that there must be more to life. And there is more to life than the movie metaphor.
When Gabler excoriates the invasion of entertainment into aspects of life that deserve all seriousness -- such as Ronald Reagan's "playing" the president like any other character role -- he's on the mark, though not exactly original. But as he examines the effect of entertainment on everyday life, his broad generalizations make for thin arguments. Gabler too often casts the layers of self-representation in contemporary life as a further remove from life itself -- as if such division inherently exists. And for someone who clearly loves entertainment, Gabler neglects to acknowledge how the sophistication of celebrity has made for a better show.
For example, Madonna is one who has prospered in the Wildean mode in the entertainment age. "She understands constantly how to remake herself," Gabler says near the conclusion of our interview, "and how to make the operational aesthetic component to which we respond. It's not that we're responding to the fact that she is now almost literally Madonna in her new incarnations -- it's the fact that she's turned herself into that Madonna: 'Here's the new incarnation of Madonna. I wonder what she's going to do next.' That is a different thing, and we'll see whether Madonna can keep on doing it. It's certainly more interesting than Elizabeth Taylor getting married and divorced. That gets old."
And if in "postreality" Liz is improved upon, life the movie -- or however life might be described -- must not be so bad.