Review: ‘Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire’ by Kurt Andersen

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year HistoryFantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Every generation has its observers who think things are bad and getting worse. Usually mass media has something to do with it: Neil Postman believed we were “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” while Nicholas Carr wrote a whole book about how we were drowning in “The Shallows” of the Internet.

Frankly, I think they’re right.

It’s not for nothing that one of my all-time favorite movies is “Network,” which has more prescient words (usually delivered by Peter Finch as Mad Prophet of the Airwaves Howard Beale) than an encyclopedia of predictions. I think the end is coming, and we’re bringing it on ourselves.

“Woe is us! We’re in a lot of trouble!” railed Beale in 1976 in Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning screenplay. Because, he explains, “less than three percent of you people read books. Because less than fifteen percent of you read newspapers. Because the only truth you know is what you get over this tube. Right now, there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube. This tube is the Gospel. The ultimate revelation! This tube can make or break Presidents, Popes, Prime Ministers. This tube is the most awesome, goddamn force in the whole godless world. And woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people.”

That’s happened, of course. Television – particularly television news, because at least the storytelling part of TV got better since the days of “Kojak” – is in the hands of large corporations who need ratings and advertising dollars, and the best way to accomplish that is with outrage and emotion.

That’s especially true of cable news. CNN manages to undercut its worthy journalism with flashy graphics, overly dramatic anchors and those infuriating he said-she said panels that expand nothing besides the egos of its members. Most of Fox News, especially its nightly commentary shows (which too many people confuse with “news”), insists that the country is being destroyed by a cabal of whomever its audience believes is most threatening – people of color, environmentalists, coastal academics, Democrats. (Oh, if only W.E.B. Du Bois were still alive to frighten them today.)

And the Internet? Never has so much bad information been so readily available to so many who will believe so much. Did you know that Barack Obama was a Kenyan Muslim socialist? Or David Rockefeller had seven heart transplants? If it’s online, it must be true. Abraham Lincoln said that. (Unless, of course, it’s “fake news,” which is defined as anything Donald Trump doesn’t like.)

Into this hopeless chasm plunges Kurt Andersen, Spy magazine co-founder, former Time magazine reporter and current “Studio 360” host. His “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire” attempts to figure out how this great experiment of a country decided to forget about objective reality in favor of truthiness.

He generally blames the twin strands that have shaped America from its beginnings: religion and money.

The latter helped create generations of con men, fakery and extremist personalities. And the former helped create generations of con men, fakery and extremist personalities. We’ve never shaken off either, and these days the two are more powerful (and bound together) than ever.

After all, the Puritans weren’t exactly welcoming, even-tempered colonists – and they begat Anne Hutchinson, who Andersen observes tried to be more pure than the Puritans. A fanatical anti-intellectual, she defamed ministers and believed she was guided by the Holy Spirit. Andersen sees a direct connection between her and many Americans of today: “Hutchinson is so American because she was so confident in herself, in her intuitions and idiosyncratic, subjective understanding of reality,” he writes.

She was exiled, but then so were so many other religious groups that have woven their threads into the American fabric. Many of them are now accepted, because in America that’s what we believe in, even if we yell and scream about it.

You may think Andersen is just talking about the Religious Right, which has distrusted science and reason in favor of Bronze Age storytelling. And he does have harsh words for them. But he also rips into the left, including self-aggrandizing psychiatrists, New Age searchers and anti-establishment hippies. In fact, it’s that ‘60s concept of “find your own truth” that ends up being the sword brandished by the right wing in promulgating THEIR own truths.

So everybody ends up in the muck.

Andersen makes a number of good points in “Fantasyland,” but – ironically – he has too much to work with. After a first half setting things up, the second half of the book becomes a polemic, with Andersen plowing through megachurches, chemtrails, vaccinations, guns, the underbelly of the Internet and, of course, the Short-Fingered Vulgarian himself – the logical outgrowth of all this fantasy. It’s powerful and distressing stuff, but it’s almost too much. Better – if that’s the right word – was Charles P. Pierce’s more studied take in “Idiot America,” or Jon Ronson’s inquisitive “Them.”

Andersen’s writing style also leaves something to be desired. He has a tendency to write crescendoed, Tom Wolfe-ian sentences, which can curdle into Tom Wolfe-ian irritability when the book enters its polemic stages. (I like Tom Wolfe, but he generally knows when to exercise control.) Worse, I lost count of the amount of times Andersen would describe some historical personage without giving his or her name – ever. “The owner of the Hollywood Reporter,” “a chemist designing life-detection instruments for NASA’s Viking mission,” “a former actor and screenwriter who’d published a bestseller about her LSD experiences” – these may be minor characters in Andersen’s history, but they have names, and it’s Journalism 101 to provide them, even if nobody knows who they are.

Still, I enjoyed much of “Fantasyland,” if “enjoyed” is the right word for listening to an increasingly frantic author ponder a country circling the drain. However, you may want to have a movie handy to counter the sinking feeling you have when you finish.

I recommend “Idiocracy.”

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Review: ‘Devil’s Bargain’ by Joshua Green

Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the PresidencyDevil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency by Joshua Green

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The most important sentence in “Devil’s Bargain,” Joshua Green’s book about Steve Bannon and his role in getting Donald Trump elected president, isn’t about either Bannon or Trump, but about something more general: communications.

“As the world was learning,” Green concludes a section on Trump the audience savant, “television and politics were not so different.”

I’d like to add, neither are politics and professional wrestling. Or politics and the post-broadband Internet. These days, they all seem to reward short attention spans, black-and-white thinking (literally so, given our level of discourse on race) and tribalism.

So much for #MAGA.

I’d been looking forward to reading this book since seeing Green’s article about Bannon on Bloomberg last year. At the time, Bannon struck me as a scary character, a smart guy who had a particular populist right-wing ideology (one which, it should seem obvious, I generally disagree with) and the shrewdness to spread it widely. “Devil’s Bargain” expands on much of that, and its most interesting sections are less about Bannon than how he recognized some of the movements of our time.

For example, video games. Back in 2005, Bannon left a job with a Hollywood agency to join a Hong Kong-based company that wanted to effectively monetize the “gold farming” engaged in by “World of Warcraft” players. In short, though the weapons and valuables in “World of Warcraft” are mere pixels, people were willing to pay real money for them. The company Bannon joined failed — the maker of “World of Warcraft” frowned on gold farming and found ways to crush it — but Bannon recognized an entirely untapped market, boy-men who lived almost entirely in cyberspace.

“If you trace a line backward from Trump’s election, it doesn’t take long before you encounter online networks of motivated gamers and message-board denizens such as the ones who populate Trump-crazed boards like 4chan, 8chan, and Reddit,” Green writes. These are the folks who live for the lulz, concoct nasty (should I say deplorable?) memes and enjoy trolling more than actually engaging in real life.

So much for Silicon Valley’s high-minded view of human nature.

Then there is how “The Apprentice” burnished Trump’s image. Now, anyone who lived within shouting distance of New York from about 1985 to the mid-2000s probably thought of Donald Trump as a buffoon, a guy who couldn’t even make a profit on a casino. But he was always on the cover of the New York tabloids — the guy could move newspapers — and that’s what initially helped him become the face of the NBC reality show. (I recall an interview with Jeff Zucker, then an NBC executive and now CNN’s president, about how he noticed Trump always helped sell copies of the New York Post, so let’s put him on a reality show. And thus we end up with a real-life version of “A Face in the Crowd.” Thanks, Jeff!) “The Apprentice” literally made Trump bankable, and with an interesting market: minorities.

Green again:

“[The producers] did a wonderful job of showing America as it was even then: multiethnic, multiracial, and multigenerational,” said [ad agency head Monique] Nelson. … The popularity extended to Trump himself, who, according to private demographic research conducted at the time, was even more popular with African Americans and Hispanic viewers than he was with Caucasian audiences.

Finally, there was Breitbart News, which Bannon took over after the death of its namesake, right-wing rabble-rouser Andrew Breitbart. Like Trump, Breitbart made no apologies when it got the story wrong, as long as it moved the applause (or outrage) needle. “Narrative truth was his priority rather than factual truth,” said one editor of Bannon.

Which is pretty much the story of how cable TV news, abetted by the Internet, helped put Trump over the top. What other candidate got airtime for his (or her) every speech? The ratings were good, and as CBS’ Les Moonves noted, everybody was making money. (Thanks, Les!) What Trump said — or meant (I’m not sure I know the difference) — didn’t matter. He was gold. I’m reminded of a Ronald Reagan staffer, who thanked a news broadcast for showing the president surrounded by a perfect scene (no doubt arranged by the masterful Michael Deaver) despite the bad news that prompted the story. After all, a picture was worth a thousand words — and the actual news was drowned out by the images.

Trump, simply by force of personality, took that to the next level. Nothing he’d done — the bankruptcies, the lack of issue knowledge, the stories about his poor behavior — could overcome his sheer entertainment value. Add that to the country’s anger and Hillary Clinton’s own faults, and he had just enough to squeak over the line. (Whoops! I meant “win by the biggest landslide in the history of the world.”)

This doesn’t downplay Bannon’s brilliance — or Trump’s shrewdness. Bannon has had his share of setbacks, but he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time (he made a mint out of “Seinfeld,” though he only took a piece of the then-struggling show because not taking it would blow a deal) and having the right friends (Green has an interesting, if slightly disturbing, portrait of Robert and Rebekah Mercer, who underwrote Breitbart and helped fund aspects of Trump’s campaign). His philosophy was the right fit for the time. As for the Only President We Have, he’s long valued the reach of the press — whether it’s for him or agin him — and he has a remarkable ability to get and hold attention, like a 12-year-old firing spitballs from the back of the class while calling the civics teacher “Mr. Poopypants.”

Ironically, “Devil’s Bargain” loses steam as the 2016 campaign heats up, perhaps because it’s too soon to go deep. But the other three-quarters are well worth your time. That is, if you still have an attention span left.

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A few words in defense of #CNN

cnn.mousepad

I worked for CNN for 16 years, and I don’t think a month went by when I didn’t bitch about the place.

Some of my complaints were simply attempts to blow off steam. Why is the CMS down again? Why do I have to change that headline? Do we have to do that bullshit story simply because it’s trending?

And then there were my deeper concerns, ones that have provoked debate in newsrooms since there have been newsrooms — questions about ratings/traffic vs. news value, questions about ethics, questions about quality.

But for all of my bitching, I was proud to work there. It was, and still is, full of intelligent, thoughtful people.

I could be cynical — most journalists are — but, as George Carlin was fond of saying, scratch a cynic and you’ll find a disappointed idealist. You don’t deal with so much human weakness without a little bit of hope that things will get better, and that you can make a difference.

Compared to many of my colleagues, I was in no way a capital-J Journalist — someone who, in my estimation, lived and breathed for scoops in pursuit of The Story (I would rather delete my overabundance of email and get a good night’s sleep) — but I cared deeply about the news, about covering it right, about fairness and accuracy and truth.

And if there’s one truth I know for certain, it’s that my colleagues cared just as deeply. And they still do.

So it makes me angry to see my old employer attacked as being “fake news,” and to see many of my old colleagues’ faces in an anti-Semitic meme. (By the way, despite my departure 15 months ago, you’ll find me in the bottom row.)

I know a lot of people hate journalists. Reporters, in their minds, are pesky busybodies who won’t leave well enough alone. They don’t pay attention to certain stories, and pay too much attention to others. (And you won’t get an argument from many reporters, who would just as soon be chasing something more meaningful than whatever the shiny object of the day is — and these days, when analytics can tell us exactly what people are looking at and for how long, there are a lot of shiny objects.)

Journalists keep asking why — and when, and where, and who and what.

But consider the recent stories that have prompted much of this backlash against the news media: the tangled relationships and communications of a certain high-ranking businessman/politician. Simply the fact that he’s important (the most important, in fact, the biggest, an incredibly important person) makes the stories newsworthy, and if you’re CNN — or any news organization, frankly — you have a responsibility to see where they lead.

As we saw from the story the network pulled a couple weeks ago, CNN is not infallible. You’re only as good as your sources, and in a volatile world where everybody has an agenda, it can be incredibly hard to nail things down. It’s happened to the best.

But CNN, like most other outlets in the so-called “MSM,” owns up to its mistakes when they happen. I have my issues with the network — I think the TV arm (like pretty much all profit-chasing TV news) has come to feel like an all-day edition of “Crossfire” with too much heat, too little light, a sad reflection of the old local news philosophy that sensation sells. But the organization is full of outstanding and humane people trying to make sense of real life that affects real people, and you can see its work on the website, CNN International and even on the main domestic network when Jeffrey Lord isn’t arguing with Van Jones.

Real life isn’t a wrestling match. And I know I’d prefer a sense of “presidential” that is less like Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (who, to give him credit, was possessed of some modesty).

On this Independence Day, the anniversary of when this representative democracy was founded, we should continue working towards “the more perfect union” the Constitution writes about. CNN and the news media, for all their faults, are central to that effort.

Tonight

Young man in pajamas sleeping on sofa at home with teddy bear
This is not me, and that is not Mulligan. Photo from ashagoldstein.com.

I will go to bed early. I will not stay up to 11:30 watching basketball or surfing the Internet.

I will sleep a sound and peaceful eight hours (at least). I will not wake up because a cat jumps on my chest. Nor will I have to get up to pee.

And tomorrow I will wake up rested and start going through all the crap I don’t want to keep. I will be unsentimental and channel my inner Marie Kondo. I will finish writing an article and I will have time to watch basketball and surf the Internet.

So I say.

Goodbye, Chuck Barris

chuck-barris-gong-show
Image from NBC via Philly.com.

I knew who Chuck Barris was even before I saw him.

I was the kind of kid who watched shows right through to the end credits, and I noticed the Chuck Barris Productions logo was very similar to ABC’s and Dick Clark’s. That made sense, since both Clark (who employed Barris in the late ’50s) and Barris had relationships with ABC. (It’s hard to beat a Paul Rand logo.)

Game show geek that I was, I did watch “The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game,” though I didn’t understand any of the snickering double-entendres both shows wallowed in. But somehow I knew they were related to Barris, and that his shows were low-brow fun. (He also did “The New Treasure Hunt.”)

Then came “The Gong Show” and Chuck the smarmy host.

Oh, man, did I watch “The Gong Show.” I loved how they gave out $516.32 for the big prize. I loved the Unknown Comic. I had no idea who Jaye P. Morgan was, but I knew Jamie Farr from “M*A*S*H” and Gary Owens had that wonderful voice.

And then there was Barris, clapping his hands, making crude jokes, taking off his bow tie within five minutes of the show’s opening. Stupid? Absolutely. Fun? Of course.

Of course, “The Gong Show” quickly got mannered — what started out as something between a real talent show and vaudeville became a planned freak parade — and “The Gong Show Movie” was even worse. (Yes, I paid to watch it in the theater.) And “The $1.98 Beauty Show” never did it for me.

But Barris was always a fascinating figure. He liked us to think so, anyway. Who else would claim he was both a TV producer and a CIA agent?

Chuck Barris shuffled off the stage Tuesday. Much to his credit, he wasn’t gonged.

We’ll leave you with Gene, Gene, the Dancing Machine.

Submitted for your approval: Rod Serling, human

screen-shot-2010-03-16-at-3-15-22-pm
Screenshot of Rod Serling from TheInvisibleAgent.

The other day I stumbled on an old “American Masters” documentary about Rod Serling, the TV writer and “Twilight Zone” creator. I’d read a biography of Serling many years ago, and watched his drama “Patterns” on a boxed set of great Golden Age TV programs, but it had been some time since I thought about the man.

Which is saying something, because in high school I was a huge “Twilight Zone” fan. I remember New Orleans’ PBS station ran reruns, and (though I’m mildly embarrassed to admit it) I spent a good deal of a prom night party exchanging plots with a good friend while others indulged in alcohol and making out. (My own date had abandoned me to get late-night beignets at the Cafe du Monde.)

In those days, it was the darkly twisted or more horrific “Twilight Zones” that caught my attention: “Time Enough at Last,” in which Burgess Meredith, the last man on Earth, finally has time to read all the books he wants — he thinks; “The Howling Man,” a terrifying tale about a prisoner in a castle; “It’s a Good Life,” the classic story about a 6-year-old with nasty powers; and “And When the Sky Was Opened,” about three astronauts who suspect they shouldn’t have come back from their mission.

But the documentary reopened my eyes to the other Serling — the humane one, the one who cared about the little guy, the unsung, the alleged failure, the salaryman. This is the Serling who earned lasting fame for “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” his “Playhouse 90” about a washed-up fighter; who served in World War II and had nightmares about his experiences for the rest of his life; and who wrote some of the most affecting “Twilight Zone” episodes — not about monsters and meanness, but about human flaws and human decency.

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Robert Osborne, 1932-2017

robert_osborne
Image from classicmoviefavorites.com.

Robert Osborne, the knowledgeable and gracious host of Turner Classic Movies, died Monday. He was 84.

The Los Angeles Times has a wonderful obituary of Osborne, who had a career as an actor before he went into journalism and then television hosting. He had a number of small roles in the ’50s and ’60s, including a bit part as Mr. Drysdale’s assistant on “The Beverly Hillbillies” pilot.

He acquits himself fine, but I’m glad he went into journalism. Lucille Ball, a mentor, told him, “We have enough actors. We don’t have enough people writing about the industry.”

For more than 25 years he wrote a column for The Hollywood Reporter. He was absolutely trusted by many starts; THR has columns by several of them today, all of whom remember him fondly.

I met him just once, when I went over to Turner’s Midtown Atlanta complex to do a brief story on TCM’s “31 Days of Oscar.” He was, of course, charming and kind. He sent me on my way with one of his coffee-table Oscar books. Nobody knew more about the awards and the history behind them. (Not even my friend Tom O’Neil, and Tom knows everything.)

Osborne had been taking a smaller role on TCM, ceding the stage to Ben Mankiewicz and newcomer Tiffany Vazquez, but even when he wasn’t on screen, he was always there. He will be greatly missed.

A tip of the turban to an old master

carnac
Image from Wikipedia.

Jon Stewart returned to old friend Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show” Tuesday night wearing an extra-long red tie and a small animal on his head — a nod, he said, to the fashion sense of our 45th president.

But there was another nod I detected, one that likely went over the heads of most of Colbert’s audience.

You’ll notice that, at about the 6:10 mark, Stewart and Colbert crack jokes about the folder Colbert holds being “the last executive order.” The way he says it is a reference to the great Carnac the Magnificent, one of Johnny Carson’s characters from his 30-year run as “Tonight Show” host.

Which got me thinking: Does anybody under 40 even remember Johnny Carson?

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Mary Tyler Moore, 1936-2017

mary-tyler-moore-through-the-years-ftr
Image from Getty Images via Parade.

I always hated the scenes in “The Dick Van Dyke Show” in which Mary Tyler Moore, as Van Dyke’s wife Laura, would moan, “Oh, Rob!” and be on the verge of tears at some presumed failing.

Hated it because, even if it was part of the character, it didn’t seem fair to Moore. It was the one bit of the ’60s show that seemed part of a ’50s TV cliche. No, Moore was smart. Cool. Hell, Laura Petrie was often more sensible than her screen husband, who was once convinced they’d brought the wrong baby home.

To his credit, “Dick Van Dyke” creator Carl Reiner knew this. He and his writers showed Moore to be more than just a pretty face, which is one reason that show still seems fresh more than 50 years later.

And Moore (and her own husband, producer Grant Tinker) knew this, too. That’s why “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” which went on the air in 1970, worked so well. Mary Richards was smart. Tough. She had heart. She had spunk. (Lou Grant originally hated spunk, but he grew to love it.)

Oh, she could get rattled, but what TV producer didn’t? She also had a terrific sense of humor. You had to, in a newsroom with Ted Baxter and Sue Ann Nivens.

About the only real failing Moore’s character Mary Richards had was she couldn’t host a dinner party to save her life. Not even when Johnny Carson was coming by.

Mary Tyler Moore — great actress, terrific talent spotter, brave and funny soul — died Wednesday. She was 80.

And though I hated “Oh, Rob!”, I’m left sad and speechless myself.

Oh, Mary. RIP.

Odds and ends: Baseball, awards, ‘Face’

tim-raines
Image from BaseballHotCorner.com.
A few things that have crossed my brain …

  • Three cheers for Jeff Bagwell, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez and Tim “Rock” Raines for making the Baseball Hall of Fame yesterday. All three are deserved Hall of Famers, and I was particularly pleased to see Raines — much overlooked, even in his heyday, because of the truly amazing Rickey Henderson — finally get the necessary 75% of ballots. The guy could always steal a base, but unlike folks like Vince Coleman, he could also hit, hit for (some) power and play solid defense. The big problem for Raines was that he mainly played for the Montreal Expos, where he was never going to get any notice. Hell, I’d forgotten that he had some late-career years with the Yankees and actually picked up a World Series ring.

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