Dalton Delan: Visiting, escaping, media maelstrom

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WESTPORT, CT. >> You are reading this in a newspaper. That's a start. Maybe on a page pulped from wood, old school, or perhaps on a backlit screen. No matter. Have a cup of coffee. Linger awhile. In this occasional column, we will step back a pace or two from the 24/7 whirl around us to consider and lend context to the media maelstrom. Call it the unspin room.

Let's begin. Taking part in a media bash this week in Los Angeles, one in which TV networks woo TV critics, I managed to catch a few flying fragments of wisdom from some very smart and different people caught up in the election year media scrum. What I heard began to come together like a lens finding focus.

In a hired car, the better to survive the freeways, the driver, Mark Huddleston, voiced what many of us feel after a season of Trumpeting on Fox News: "The media makes news as much as they report it." As he said it wistfully, without outrage, I couldn't argue with his logic.

Recently unseated as Svengali of Fox News, Roger Ailes' greatest seduction was not of his blonde on blonde talent bench, but of the American people, who bestowed the ratings that fueled the nonstop Trumpathon.

Media-made man

The day after my car ride, I was still thinking about Mr. Huddleston's chicken and egg upending as I sat rapt in Merv Griffin's creation, the Beverly Hilton; there, culturally astute philosopher and scat poet Cornel West, never one to mince words, told the crowd of TV critics that Trump had received the benefit of "$3 billion of free time from the media." Professor West, there on behalf of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in a session, full disclosure, related to my work, was voicing what has become apparent, namely that so-called "earned media" — the kind a candidate doesn't pay for — has become a nuclear weapon in the media wars of America's red and blue states. In effect, it helped make the self-avowedly self-made Mr. Trump.

On the same stage as Dr. West, journalist and lifelong civil rights crusader Charlayne Hunter-Gault, still fighting the good fight, opined that in this summer of racially tinged or outright paraded violence, there are lots of positive things happening on the local level in communities across the country, hammering blows against the empire of systemic racial and economic injustice. But, lamented Ms. Hunter-Gault, "You just don't hear about it because it's not sexy news."

I was reminded of the famous scene in D.A. Pennebaker's documentary "Don't Look Back" when a young and snarling Bob Dylan taunts an editor of Time Magazine with the assertion that a tramp vomiting in the sewer would never make the magazine's cover. (As a Time-Life alum, I confess to some empathy for the poor editor — not sure I'd have wanted that cover myself.) So the triage of earned media favors Trump over tramp.

What draws these comments together is the consciousness that media, whether corporatist or blogged from someone's basement, is out of control — a beast so huge, ubiquitous and influential that it is hard to tell where the Orwellian theater of "The Hunger Games" leaves off and the Riefenstahl-like rallies of Candidate Trump begin.

Don't even start me on virtual reality and augmented reality — VR and AR for my fellow analogs — new ways of seeing the world in which today's Pokemon on the go may augur in tomorrow's Schadenfreude stroll of the Donald arm-in-arm around Red Square with Comrade Putin, showing off his treasure trove of Hillary Clinton she-mails.

In my escape from LA, I found myself yesterday flying back to New England at 35,000 feet, yet sadly no longer untethered from the Earth, as WiFi has invaded HiFly.

The 'me' in media

With a day now to reflect on the words I heard in what is, after all, the city of celluloid dreams that fueled the cult of media celebrity, I came to the conclusion that what seems like a perfect storm of media is, looking ahead, a noisome but inchoate ground zero in an emerging world of interconnectedness. Too soon tomorrow, man and machine will become increasingly permeable — putting the "me" in media.

For a glimpse of this impending future, check out the brilliant BBC series "Black Mirror" however you can find it in the digital superstore; in one of the most prescient dystopian episodes of this "Twilight Zone" of the 21st century, "The Entire History of You," a grain implanted behind a man's ear records and replays at terrible cost everything he sees.

Like Jorge Luis-Borges' man who could forget nothing and so finally had to take himself to a pitch-black room to limit his stimuli, we are on the verge of a psyche-splitting biotechnical revolution that is, like much of medical, scientific and engineering innovation, far ahead of our systems of regulation and culture to handle it.

What to do? I can only suggest for myself. When I was participating in that conference in LA, a director handed me Oculus Rift goggles and urged me to cross over to the newest media seascape, to experience a dramatic boat ride without ever leaving the shore. Sensing the seasick sway of this virtual world, I wondered if this was how Columbus felt. I took off the magic goggles and thanked him, then popped a few Tums.

Glad to be back in the real world, I boarded my plane. Troglodyte that I am, I intend to spend tomorrow on my little New England stinkpot, as many miles from shore as it takes to reduce my cell service to static. There, rocking my media supersaturated head in the bosom of the waves, I will watch the gulls, pop a can of something cold from the ice in the bait well, and read the day's newspaper in peace, the way it used to be. I'll see you next time, when I putter in to shore.

Dalton Delan is an executive producer of PBS series such as Washington Week and In Performance at the White House. He was in the ABC News documentary unit as well as at HBO. He has received Emmy, Peabody and duPont-Columbia Awards. He will be writing regularly for The Eagle opinion page.


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