What a ‘Dog’ can teach us about the media

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Jillian Schroeder, Contributing Writer

 

When my high- school teacher for U.S. government assigned Barry Levinson’s film, “Wag the Dog,” I almost had a heart attack. No quiz? No three-page review of a visit to the local courthouse? Our assignment was a little-known movie with a bizarre title?

It turned out to be the most significant assignment of the entire class.

The movie begins days before a close election, when the incumbent U.S. president is accused of sexual misconduct. Determined to cover up the scandal, a political spin-doctor (Robert De Niro) hires an eccentric Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to help him create a fictional war with Albania to splash across the news and distract the nation.

In the film, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro create a fake war to cover up a real scandal.
In the film, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro create a fake war to cover up a real scandal.

Perhaps the plot sounds too much like a farce to be legitimate political commentary — a type of exaggerated, Aristophanic invective. But while the movie shares the Greek playwright’s no-holds-barred attitude towards content, there’s a surprising level of realism in Levinson’s creation.

The film was released in early January of 1998, just months before the infamous Lewinsky scandal that cast a Vesuvian cloud of disgrace over the Clinton administration. Does Clinton’s subsequent bombing of an Al-Shiba pharmaceutical company remind one a little too much of Hoffman’s fictive war? I certainly think so.

In fact, “Wag the Dog” is not so much a political farce as it is a fiercely intelligent and perceptive satire. The film poses significant questions about the electoral system and, more importantly, about what controls public opinion.

With disturbing ease, you watch Hoffman’s producer feed fake clips of terrorism in Albania to newsmen hungry for a front-pager. He hires songwriters to create anthems and merchandisers to create catchy phrases and patriotic products.

In less than an hour, you see how quickly the better impulses of a nation can be manipulated and warped.

This is definitely a strange topic to publish in a newspaper (of all things), I know. But the question is a worthy one: Whence comes our information?

Are the stories plastered across the internet written about factual, past events? Or is the so-called news mostly speculation at best, and fiction at worst? Are the news articles interpretations or reports? You tell me.

Consider the latest presidential election, in which some states’ electoral votes were being called with only 10% of the polls reporting. Some newslines even announced a victor in the election before any polls in the West Coast had even begun to send in their reports.

That’s not a clear portrayal of something that has already happened. That’s not news. That’s prediction.

“Wag the Dog” may be funny, but its humor is dark. Each step seems logical, and you can’t help cheering for De Niro’s charismatic leadership and Hoffman’s outrageous ingenuity. You’re duped by the lie as much as everyone, right up until the film’s sobering end.

In the end, people don’t want dissolute officials or scandal webs. They want wars to fight and heroes to support — a struggle for a cause bigger than themselves.

Every day, you will meet people who will offer you a hero to cheer for, one whose interests you can defend. Levinson’s film simply warns against cheering too quickly.

Films that challenge the way we live are rare, and few do it so well as “Wag the Dog.” But don’t just take my word for it because you read it in a newspaper. Go, watch it. Find the truth for yourself.

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