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Real Fiction or the illusion of political dramatics?

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, May 8, 2006

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Chapel Hill, NC - “At a certain point reality burst through,” New York Times columnist Frank Rich said when he was in North Carolina a couple of months ago.

In a speech on the Carolina campus, Rich described a shift in the focus of American media from finding and reporting the facts to delivering “drama” to readers and viewers. Today’s American media consumers want compelling stories more than they want “just the facts, ma’am” reports that characterized newspapers before USA Today and before the 24-hour cable news channels on television.

Big entertainment companies have acquired the major television networks and many print outlets. These reconfigurations contribute to the changing focus. Rich used the death Princess Diana, the O.J. Simpson case, and the Monica Lewinski affair as examples of how 24-hour reporting could extend a story continuously and indefinitely, even when there is nothing new to report.

He calls the combination of news media and show business “mediathon.”

The resulting competition for the most compelling story has lead to exaggerated stories and inaccurate reporting.

The government, Rich laments, has become a participant, too. Especially after the events of September 11, 2001, our government led us, not with facts, but with drama.

The American public (you and I included) watched the story of the war in Iraq unfold as if we were watching a Hollywood thriller, confident of a quick victory by the “forces of good.”

With the “quick victory” a distant memory, the producers of the drama are now training us to think of the show as the “long war.”

As a former drama critic for the Times, Rich was a brutal evaluator of Broadway plays. But his theatre criticism is tame compared to what he says about the government’s attempts to mislead the public by stagecraft and illusion.

Rich’s upcoming book, tentatively titled “The Greatest Story Ever Sold,” will deal with the post 9-11 “storytelling” by the media and the government.

If the national political leadership and government have joined hands with the media to give us “show business” type news, what has been the impact on North Carolina politics?

If our state government leaders and politicians are trying to deliver us entertainment news, any good drama critic would “pan” their efforts. Other than driving a few laps in a NASCAR racecar or showing up on the spot for the TV cameras when there is a hurricane, North Carolina leaders are not giving us much of a show.

Maybe showing up for hurricanes is a pretty good idea, especially if it is accompanied by real help for the victims. Rich says “reality burst through” for the Bush administration only after the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina demonstrated how little substance there was behind its curtain of illusions.

Are we missing good political shows because our politicians are behind the curve? Or are North Carolinians just too smart to be fooled by such stagecraft? Or do we prefer to get our entertainment from “real fiction”?

Two lawyers with Salisbury connections are giving us a clue this week as they compete to entertain us—one with a “real fiction” story and the other with stagecraft to gain political support.

Former Salisbury lawyer John Hart’s first novel, “The King of Lies,” is getting abundant national publicity this week in preparation for its official release next week. His publisher is spending lots of money to promote this murder mystery set in Salisbury. Hart has already signed deals for film and foreign publishing rights that will bring him hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Meanwhile, Salisbury lawyer Bill Graham has reportedly spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money to promote a “repeal the gas” tax movement and a rally in Raleigh this week to coincide with the opening of the legislature.

If the gas tax rally gets lots of attention as political drama, Bill Graham may be on his way to a campaign for governor. And, if John Hart’s book launch results in a big best seller, he will become a national celebrity.

If both these “dramas” are successful, I hope Frank Rich finds a place to mention Salisbury, North Carolina, in his upcoming book.


D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. This week’s (May 14) guest is Martha Witt, author of “Broken As Things Are,” a highly praised coming of age novel set in Hillsborough.

Upcoming NC Bookwatch programs, all at 5pm, Sundays on UNC-TV:

May 14 Martha Witt Broken As Things Are

May 21 Gerhard Weinberg Visions of Victory

May 28 Shannon Ravenel New Stories from the South, 2005

June 3 Emily Herring Wilson No One Gardens Alone

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