Film: 'News of the World' is a reflexion on our times
ROME - In director Paul Greengrass’ new drama, adapted from the Western novel by Paulette Jiles, Tom Hanks plays a Civil War veteran named Captain Jefferson Kidd, who ekes out a modest living by travelling from frontier town to frontier town, in Texas in 1870, reading the news to ‘anyone with 10 cents and the time to hear it.’ Five years after the end of the war, a state of simmering hostility persists across much of Texas. Union soldiers patrol the towns and roads, and are visibly despised by a white population reluctant to rejoin the United States.
At that time, most people in those small towns couldn’t read, so they relied on people like Kidd to tell them what’s going on in the world. Kidd is a solitary traveller, an old-fashioned storyteller, who’s an entertainer as much as an informer, choosing what to read and how to present it.
“So they pay you to tell stories. I ain’t never heard of that as a thing a man can do,” says a young cowboy. “It’s not a rich man’s occupation, as you can see,” Kidd replies and he could be talking for all of us who work as journalists today.
“This is a movie about the exchange of information,” says Tom Hanks, interviewed about the film. “There are facts that when they are presented to an audience that is hungry for them, they are educated, enthralled and entertained by the news of the world. This movie takes place in the shadow of the Civil War’s end, and in Texas particularly there is strife, there is anger and defeat and very little has been resolved. And that anger, that anxiety, that ongoing conflict is in every town that Kidd goes to, to read the news.”
It’s easy to compare the situation described in the film with the situation in America today where roughly half of all Republicans believe President Donald Trump “rightfully won” the U.S. election but that it was stolen from him by widespread voter fraud that favored Democratic President-elect Joe Biden, according to a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll carried out last November.
Ex-President Donald Trump contested the election results as soon as it became clear that Joe Biden would be inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States. Trump claimed that the outcome reflected a “rigged election,” publicly indulging nonsense conspiracy theories. His attorneys filed baseless, tendentious lawsuits in six states, only to be rebuffed in every case but one. Right from the start the only acceptable or legitimate outcome for Trump and his hard-core supporters was a victory.
They still refuse to acknowledge Trump’s loss even though “Judges ruled decisively that Trump’s side has not proved the election was fraudulent,” The Washington Post reported “with some offering painstaking analyses of why such claims lack merit and pointed opinions about the risks the legal claims pose to American democracy.”
This has been possible because for years Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and other media organizations associated with the far right have functioned as conduits for GOP propaganda and have used fake news – news reports that are intentionally and verifiably fake - in order to manipulate people’s perceptions of reality.
An example of the deliberate use of fake news is what is happening currently in Texas, where an extreme cold spell has left millions of people freezing in the dark. Local Republican politicians and right-wing media, are using outright lies - such as the claim that wind and solar power caused the collapse of the Texas power grid – when, in fact, Republicans who’ve been running Texas for decades caused the power shortages by choosing not to provide power companies with incentives to install reserve capacity to deal with possible emergencies, and ignoring suggestions to winterize its power plants with insulation, heat pipes and other measures.
Fake news has caused growing mistrust among American people. In some cases, this widespread deep mistrust has even resulted in violence as we saw on 6 Jan. when a mob of Trump supporters and right wing fanatics, incited by the President, carried out an attack on the Capitol to interrupt the counting of electoral votes that assigned the presidency to Joe Biden.
A report from the Committee to Protect Journalists said Trump’s attacks on the news media and on unsympathetic journalists described as “enemies of the people” have “dangerously undermined truth and consensus in a deeply divided country” and have endangered American democracy.
“I’m worried,” wrote UC Berkeley political scientist Henry Brady, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy, in the university’s Greater Good Magazine. “The republic is as frayed as it’s ever been since probably the mid-19th century, in the period just before, during, and after the Civil War.”
Brady says “The Biden administration’s greatest task is to make sure they do two things: One, tame COVID. Two, get jobs and relief for people and make sure the economy comes back. If they do those two things, that could, to some extent, restore faith in government and increase trust.”
“Also,” writes Brady, “we’ve got to get away from the notion that we’re going to constantly destroy norms, which is unfortunately what the Trump presidency has done. We need norms, we need standards. The standards are: Truth matters.”
Communications studies major Hannah Koford at Brigham Young University thinks Biden’s promise to restore the relationship with the press is amazing because “it is of utmost importance to have a president who values that.”
“It’s important for the president to respect the press because it shows he values transparency and open access to information and shows he values democracy,” Koford said. Without the free press, it is not possible to have a democracy because democracy cannot exist without the “absolutely essential” check on government the press provides.
During her first official briefing on Jan. 20, the new White House press secretary, Jennifer Psaki, promised to bring “truth and transparency” to her exchanges with the news media. “I have deep respect for the role of a free and independent press,” Ms. Psaki said, “We have a common goal, which is sharing accurate information with the American people.”
It remains to be seen how the relationship between the Biden administration and the news media will develop over time but undoubtedly this was an important step in the right direction.