Monday, April 23, 2007

Vonnegut, Propaganda, and Fox

by Libby Hellmann

As writers we know the power of words. We choose them carefully – rooting around sometimes for hours or days just to find the right verb or adjective. We respect the differences and shadings, however minute, that specific words connote. We understand that the right words create a mood or perception in which the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts.

We also recognize when others do it effectively. When novelists do it well, it’s called good fiction. But when the guardians of the nation’s airwaves do it, under the guise of disseminating information, it’s propaganda.

Which is why I’m still appalled at a story on Fox News. (Thanks to J.D.Rhoades for blogging about it last week. And to Judy Bobalik who drew my attention to it)

Okay. We all know Fox is no friend to liberals. We know how they shade stories, particularly political ones, to suit the right-wing. We know how they use code words to inflame or champion whatever the right wing’s sound-bite du jour happens to be, whether it’s government’s, administration’s, or some corporate entity’s.

But this wasn’t a political piece. At least it wasn’t supposed to be. This was an obituary of Kurt Vonnegut. A recounting of his life and work. Notice I didn’t say “tribute” – that’s not the role of the media. They are simply there to recount the facts -- put them in an order for us – the public -- to interpret. And whether you like his writing or not, the fact is that Vonnegut was a major figure in American literature.

Except you wouldn’t know it by Fox’s piece.

The reporter went out of his way to discredit Vonnegut at every turn. In his first sentence, he mentions Vonnegut’s “leftist screeds.” He goes on to talk about his “despondent leftism”… He labels Vonnegut “irrelevant” and “quirky”… He makes sure to mention his suicide attempt (okay that’s fair game…), his scatological humor, his send-up of New York literary society. Like I said, a little of that is appropriate, but, in making sure he mentioned all of Vonnegut’s imperfections, he missed the entire point of the man’s significance.

Sure, Vonnegut was unabashedly left-wing. And anti-war. But people read Vonnegut because he was an antidote to the powers that be. He saw through the artifice and the propaganda and the BS of his time, and he did it in a way that was entertaining, clever, and, ultimately, moving. People read Vonnegut because they knew they could count on him to see the Emperor with no clothes, at a time when the prevailing voices said otherwise.

But there was no word about that in the report. The reporter either deliberately chose to ignore the man’s relevance (How could anyone call Vonnegut “irrelevant”?), or his bosses ordered him to, or he’s as dumb as a box of rocks.

What ticked me off the most, though, was the opening line of the report. It was – well –supremely arrogant. “Vonnegut wouldn’t have wanted a classical send-off… (or something to that effect).. so here’s the Cliff notes version.”

Says who?

How does this Fox reporter presume to know what Vonnegut wanted? He made him seem like a cranky old man, rather than the literary giant he was. Now, if Joyce Carol Oates or Tom Wolfe or Stephen King or some other literary figure had made that comment, maybe I’d give it some credence. Maybe. But a reporter?

But then, that’s Fox. They just can’t stop.

Here’s the link to the obit:

What do you think?


Michael Dymmoch said...

Bill Moyers was on "Fresh Air" this
morning, talking about his new PBS program, Bill Moyers' Journal. (WTTW, Channel 11, 9:00 P.M. CDT, Wednesday, April 25.)

The first episode, "Buying the War" explores how Fox strong-armed journalists into buying the war and canceled Phil Donahue in spite of OK ratings because he was too liberal. It also details how V.P. Cheney "corroborated" information from sources the government had leaked it to in order to bolster government claims it was necessary to attack Iraq. (Yeah, that's just as crazy as it sounds, but it's documented.)

Sara N Paretsky said...

Libby, great post, and so infuriating. can we start a letter-writing campaign to Fox re Vonnegut? Does anyone out there have a good name/address for one of their "news" producers?

Maryann Mercer said...

I always respected Vonnegut for his talent with words and his refusal to buy into the 'popular' story. He wrote what he wanted to write regardless of political correctness (another term I swear was coined by Fox)and told some great stories. The sensation seeking techniques of Fox News have annoyed me for a long time. Would they have eulogized a neo-con for his "rightest" words? Nope. I'm with Sara. Except for the fact that writing the letters would mean someone was actually tuning in to their programs, some protest seems necessary. Letters are the civilized way to go about it...which might just go over the collective heads of the station. Good and thoughtful post, Libby. Thanks.

Barbara D'Amato said...

I'm with Sara, too. If somebody comes up with an address, I'll write.

Ormondroyd's Encyclopedia Esoterica said...

I'm disgusted but not surprised that Fox would use an obituary for this crap. The Murdoch tabloids in England have managed to politicize even the pin-up girls on Page Three. The model "interviews" that used to say things like "turn-ons, fuzzy bunnies; turn-offs, mean people", now badmouth unions, Iraq war critics and the Labour Party. I kid you not.

Karen Harris said...

I have always been a huge Vonnegut fan and respected his work, but for crying out loud his Service! I'm a conservative, veteran, Reagan-era veteran. Freedom was our mesage. Wtf?
The man gave unselfishly to any and all writers, whatever their message, all of his life.
How dare anyone dismiss body of work or his influence of gen we generations of readers. Only thing I can say is some people are incapable of understanding him at all. I've met a sad handful of those.