The Real Fake News
If aliens monitor our movies and TV shows and tune in to our radio stations, they’re about to get even more confused. When they watch our movies, they’ll see faces from the evening news reporting on horrific wars, assassinations, and natural disasters—none of which ever seem to happen. They’ll see the same people, wearing the same shiny makeup, sitting in from of the same bluish backgrounds, reporting on battles between Batman and Superman, the election of Donald Trump, lethal zombie invasions, a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the advent of Thor. After a while, they may begin to wonder why anyone trusts these people anymore. Of course, radio signals take time to travel through space, as those who watched the opening scene of Contact (1997) might remember, so it could be some time before extraterrestrials get to 9/11, or Wonder Woman, or President Trump.
Contact was ahead of its time in more ways than one. When the film came out twenty years ago, critics faulted CNN for allowing twenty-five of its newscasters, including Larry King, Bernard Shaw, and Donna Kelley, to report on fictional events while cameoing as themselves. Not surprisingly, rival news networks—NBC, ABC, CBS—professed themselves deeply offended. (A typical statement from an NBC spokeswoman, laughable even at the time: “We don’t feel it’s wise to blur information and entertainment.”) Wolf Blitzer, one of the few CNN reporters who had refused to appear in the film, said simply, “I just didn’t think it was the right thing to do.” Outcry over Contact convinced Tom Johnson, then the president of CNN, to revise company policy regarding film cameos and reassess the network’s relationship with its brand-new parent company, Time Warner. Less than a year after the film’s premiere, CNN announced that from now on, its ethics board would need to approve or deny all journalist cameos.
But CNN’s ethics board proved to be exceedingly generous with its employees’ Hollywood careers, and within a decade it was almost impossible to watch a movie without catching a glimpse of a familiar orange, spray-tanned face from the evening news. Slowly, other networks realized how naïve they’d been to denounce their rival for blurring information and entertainment. Sneaking a news anchor into a film was the most ingenious bit of branding since Coca-Cola invented the modern version of Santa Claus—it fused the audience’s love for the movie with their love for the anchor, and vice versa. In a disaster movie, the genre most receptive to the trend, the sight of a familiar anchor acted as a kind of macabre advertisement for the anchor’s news station—the implication seeming to be that even while the world burned, Barbara Walters or Sean Hannity or Nancy Grace would be there, calmly informing you that you were going to die. (The rules usually prevented the networks from displaying their logos in Hollywood films, but since everyone knew which anchors worked for which networks, it amounted to the same thing.)
Katie Couric, who sat down with notable guests like Al Gore, Edward Snowden, and Craig Scott, the father of one of the victims of the Columbine shooting, goofed off in Zoolander 2. Fox News anchors, most of them well-aware of having only been entertainers to begin with, became some of the most prolific cameo-makers—Bill O’Reilly, for instance, reported on not one but two global apocalypses, in Transformers 3 (2011) and Iron Man 2 (2010), sensibly waiting a few years before complaining that dishonest reporting was harming “the fabric of our society.” And the principled Wolf Blitzer—who, apparently, had been referring exclusively to films back in 1997—popped up in House of Cards, The Brink, Graves, Alpha House, and any other small-screen soap that needed a real newsman to report on a fake president.
Two of the most disturbing things about the early 21st century media are fast becoming uncontroversial: first, the deterioration of journalistic truth standards; second, the elevation of entertainment to the significance of real news. In 2017, newscaster cameos may be the only fact-fiction crossovers for which people have no difficulty keeping the two concepts apart. The journalists are real, and the news they read is fictional—easy enough to remember. No one confuses a news story from The Interview (2014) with the real thing, which is more than can be said for a significant chunk of the news on Facebook. When Bret Baier reads the news on House of Cards, everyone understands that he’s playing a reporter, which is to say, himself; when Baier reads a real news story in Fox News, pundits debate whether he’s a journalist, an entertainer, or both. Two decades after Tom Johnson expressed concern that Contact viewers would mistake fictional reports for the truth, newscaster cameos have become so common that, instead of adding a dash of authenticity to the proceedings, they hammer home their films’ artificiality, flashing a glimpse of the multinational economics that allow employees of Time Warner, Viacom, Disney, and Comcast to slide back and forth between the newsroom and the red carpet.
That the Contact “scandal” now seems exceedingly naïve suggests how greatly the media have declined in a mere twenty years. But the gold standard for all fake news scandals (and non-scandals) remains Orson Welles’s The War of the Worlds radio broadcast. In 1938, on the night before Halloween, The Mercury Theater on the Air performed an hour-long live adaptation of H.G. Wells’s alien invasion novel. Though Welles, only twenty-three at the time, paused twice to remind listeners that they were listening to a work of fiction, the program, which featured lengthy interviews with nonexistent professors and cleverly mimicked the conventions of other radio stations, was intended to ensnare listeners in its deceptive, meta-fictional layers, even as they recognized that they were being fooled.
There’s been significant disagreement about whether The War of the Worlds launched a genuine panic, or if news of the panic was largely fabricated. Different historians’ treatments of the incident (most recently the one A. Brad Schwartz provides in his book Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News) have paralleled the changing ways that people have perceived the media over the last seven decades. In the twenty-first century, when almost no one mistakes fictional films or TV shows for the real thing anymore, the consensus seems to be that the panic was largely dreamed up by the publicity-hungry Welles himself (meaning that the greatest hoax surrounding the broadcast wasn’t even the broadcast itself). The other notable culprit, the New York Times, published a long, intermittently racist article alleging that Welles’s performance had engendered a “mass hysteria” in the streets of Harlem and Newark. The editors of the Times, not unlike their counterparts at ABC and NBC in 1997, pounced on an opportunity to discredit their younger rival, and for years to come, Welles and print media worked together to paint a radio program with no more than a few thousand listeners as an agent of mass chaos.
Even so, newspapers don’t invent stories out of thin air; they begin with a grain of truth and then expand it into something bigger. While it’s highly unlikely that The War of the Worlds sent entire neighborhoods into hysterics, it’s clear that Welles genuinely terrified at least some of his listeners. Listening to the broadcast today, one is struck by how cleverly Welles disorients his audience, counterpointing the calmness of the fake radio announcers with fake screams the Mercury Players cooked up in the sound studio. Midway through the show, over distant cries, one announcer informs the listener that America’s military has been wiped out—New Yorkers need to evacuate the city or risk losing their lives. “This may be the last broadcast,” he says, grimly determined; “we’ll stay here to the end.” Although no actual reporters were involved in recording The War of the Worlds, this line, with its self-congratulatory heroism, anticipates seventy years of apocalyptic newscaster cameos in film and television. It encapsulates an era in which at least a few Americans could feel genuinely frightened when a voice on the radio told them that aliens had taken Manhattan.
A few months after the New York Times had propelled Welles to national fame, H.V. Kaltenborn, CBS radio’s star announcer, made one of the earliest newscaster cameos on a Hollywood film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Introducing himself by name (something contemporary newscasters no longer have to do in their film cameos—their faces are famous enough), Kaltenborn makes no secret of his support for Senator Smith, the intrepid common man played by Jimmy Stewart. “It is the most unusual and spectacular thing in the Senate annals,” Kaltenborn reports in the middle of Senator Smith’s filibuster; “one alone and simple American, holding the greatest floor in the land. What he lacked in experience, he’s made up in fight.” It’s a political stance that contemporary newscasters rarely adopt in their Avengers cameos, during which their reports of carnage and disaster practically cry out for a superhuman strongman to save the day.
Kaltenborn was a radioman through and through; by the time the television era began, he was well into his seventies. Though he switched to TV reporting for NBC in the final years of his career, he seemed unable to shake the habits he’d built up as a younger reporter (viewers complained that he would describe his subjects’ movements and facial expressions, even though millions of people could see them already). In 1951, when he appeared as himself in Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, one of the darkest, most unabashedly political sci-fi films of the genre’s golden age, he played a radio broadcaster, not a TV reporter, puzzling over how to respond to the arrival of a flying saucer in Washington, DC. By presenting the American media as disorganized and deeply fallible, Wise’s Cold War parable differs markedly from contemporary films with newscaster cameos. In willful denial of media polarization, recent sci-fi features will often present a rapid montage of near-identical news stories, or else a single report that acts as a synecdoche for the consensus interpretation. The Day the Earth Stood Still, perhaps unknowingly reflecting the sea changes in the American media at the time, shows four real-life journalists, all veterans of TV and radio, debating what to do about the aliens. Kaltenborn, Elmer Davis (ABC), and Gabriel Heatter (Mutual Broadcasting) urge Washington to destroy the flying saucer, lest it be a Soviet trap. Only Drew Pearson, who was working for NBC at the time, advises caution. In the early years of television, with the increasingly fierce rivalries between different news programs, there can be no consensus about what happened, let alone what to do.
Is it any wonder that the films of the 50s and 60s featuring newscaster cameos are almost exclusively sci-fi stories about sudden, dangerous invaders? The increased affordability and popularity of television (by 1954, more than half of American households owned a set) created plentiful opportunities for films to show TVs and TV reporters onscreen. In the right hands, the appearance of a newscaster in a movie made the characters’ lives seem casually contemporary, and, particularly in an sci-fi film, they provided a benchmark of banality against which audiences could measure the extraordinary (for lazier filmmakers, on the other hand, newscaster cameos were essentially a cheap form of exposition).
Throughout the 50s, TV manufacturers faced a public relations nightmare. The American people’s ignorance of the science of television, coupled with Cold War paranoia and a vague awareness that radio waves were involved somehow, led certain homeowners to fear that televisions were as deadly as the ray guns in their children’s comic books. In museums of film and television, one sometimes finds TVs built to resemble dishwashers, washing machines, and other appliances families were likely to own already—all part of a marketing campaign designed to convince Americans to think of their TVs as family members, not hostile intruders. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, Godzilla (1954), even Night of the Living Dead (1968), the TV, and the newscaster who appears on it in a time of crisis, is a double agent, reassuring yet menacing, familiar yet foreign. Audiences at the time saw the irony, even if it’s lost on us today: faced with the threats of aliens, zombies, radioactive lizards, people turn to a different kind of home invader to decide what to do.
Taken together, newscaster cameos offer a history of technology, war, and aggressive media expansion so distinctively American that one might assume they’re primarily an American phenomenon. But in fact, newscaster cameos have long been a fixture of film and television in France, Spain, Australia, Norway, Germany, Mexico, and anywhere else where the same people control news and entertainment. The reporter Saburô Iketani had a series of stints in Japanese news before he appeared in Godzilla, and afterwards, his career consisted almost exclusively of reading fake news stories in the innumerable Godzilla sequels, spin-offs, and rip-offs. In Scandinavian countries, where semi-autonomous government agencies run the news, reporters make cameos in movies and TV shows nearly as often as they do in the US, but more commonly in the neighborhood of noir, a genre that, like sci-fi, revel in the crossover between the everyday and the extraordinary.
In the Western world, the most notable exception to the ubiquity of newscasters cameos is Great Britain, owing largely to the legacy of Ghostwatch, a 1992 BBC special that occupies a position in British media history somewhat similar to the one The War of the Worlds occupies in American media history. Like Welles’s broadcast, Ghostwatch aired just in time for Halloween, mimicked the format of the news, supposedly caused national hysteria, and continues to provoke debate over the extent of the damage it caused. In the 91-minute program, a duo of well-known BBC newscasters explore a haunted house in search of a poltergeist named Pipes, who, by the time program draws to a close, has seized control of the entire BBC. In the following weeks, a mentally challenged man committed suicide, citing fear of ghosts, and doctors reported at least three-dozen cases of post-traumatic stress disorder in children who’d watched the program. The Broadcasting Standards Commission censured a handful of BBC executives for hiring real news anchors and banned any airing of Ghostwatch for the next decade—all this, despite the fact that, as with The War of the Worlds, the BBC had taken pains to stress the program’s fictional nature throughout its airtime.
It’s telling to contrast Welles’s broadcast and Ghostwatch, for all their similarities. The later program’s only reported victims were children and the intellectual disabled. Since 1992, the co-creators of Ghostwatch, Steven Volk and Lesley Manning, haven’t done anything in television or film that can rival their one great achievement from the early 90s (if they’re still working on their Citizen Kane, it’s twelve years behind schedule). While it may be unfair to compare the one-of-a-kind Orson Welles with any other media figure, it seems impossible that any living entertainer could be called a great artist for using the tricks that Welles pioneered in 1938. Newscaster cameos in fictional films have lost whatever power they once had to shock or disorient, or even, on a less visceral level, to impress artistically.
Contact signaled the beginning of the era of information-as-entertainment in which we’re still trapped. As befits the decision that helped bring on the full-scale economization of the news, the aftermath of the Contact scandal subjected newscaster cameos to the laws of diminishing marginal returns—the more of them there were in film and television, the less effective each new one became. It’s no wonder that the most striking reporter cameos of recent years haven’t been in intense sci-fi blockbusters, but in self-referential dramas and comedies, where they expose the artifice of storytelling instead of hiding it. Though the deep-voiced, square-jawed Rick Chambers (who looks and sounds as stereotypically reporter-ish as it is possible to look and sound) has played a newscaster in half a dozen films during his time with the KTLA Weekend News, his greatest role by far was in the film Nightcrawler (2014), a satire of the “stringers” who gather footage of crimes and accidents for the local news. In the film’s most cruelly hilarious scene, he cheerfully ad-libs on-air over footage of a bloody home invasion while his producer barks orders into his earpiece like a ballet instructor coaching a prized pupil: “Hit it! Again! Harder!”
Nightcrawler, along with a handful of other recent films, understands that news cameos—and, perhaps, newscasters themselves—have become symbols of hollowness, not honesty. Newscasters earn their pay largely because their faces and voices inspire other people’s trust, yet, in the 21st century, newscaster cameos emphasize the distance between what is said and the people who’ve been hired to say it. Watching these films, one sees a little more clearly that newscasters like Wolf Blitzer and Sean Hannity are, in effect, puppets who can be commanded to deliver any message— Superman or Scaramucci, Batman or Ben Carson.
And when one realizes this, it starts to seem pointless to mock newscaster cameos—whether intentionally, in Nightcrawler, or unintentionally, in the typical superhero film, they mock themselves. It would be impossible to conceive of a real newscaster appearing in a fictional film in North Korea, where the barrier between truth and myth is even flimsier than in the United States; nothing would be allowed to interfere with the newscaster’s status as voice of Fate. In 2016, Kim Jong-un called Ri Chun-hee, the grand old lady of the national news, out of retirement to announce the country’s first successful hydrogen bomb tests. Ri had kept the populace up to date on state-doctored information for more than three decades; her defining moment came in 2011, when she teared up while announcing the death of Kim Jong-Il. Half a century ago, Walter Cronkite wept on national television as he announced the death of John F. Kennedy, but no comparable moment exists, or could exist, in our memories of September 11, 2001—no single reporter could occupy such an essential role in a national tragedy. Instead of a single cult of personality, the 21st century American media offer an endless number of tinier cults, a cacophony of different networks and websites and stations with different styles and opinions and interpretations, the reporters switching back and forth between fiction and nonfiction in the course of the same program.
Information about the world is as unreliable as it has ever been in America. Stories that have been proven false already, like Barack Obama’s Kenyan birth, or the size of the crowd on Inauguration Day, survive their debunking and lurch zombically on, impervious to factual refutations of any kind. Next to scoops of this size, newscaster cameos in Hollywood films can seem positively innocent in the way they fool around with fact and fiction. That they now seem so trivial is, in itself, decidedly nontrivial, and a mark of how cheap truth itself has gotten in less than a generation. If for no other reason, we need to pay attention to reporter cameos on order to train ourselves for a task that’s become increasingly urgent: seeing the absurdity of that which is right in front of our faces.
Feature image via Creative Commons.