Nixon and Frost and the blending of history and entertainment

December 17, 2008

The Smithsonian is one of the very few magazines I read and I came across this intriguing article by James Reston Jr in the email teaser for the latest issue.

One of my favorite topics, as any regular crisisblogger reader will know, is “infotainment.” As the mainstream media industry tailspins into history, its adoption of entertainment forms to grab and hold audiences is increasingly desperate. The implications for crisis managers is as significant as the head in the sand response to this that pervades public relations.

Some say that journalism is the first draft of history and journalism is again in my opinion driven primarily by the need to build audiences and therefore by entertainment values. But what about entertainment and the later drafts of history. This article is very interesting in that regard. In part because of the obvious lack of concern of the playwright for the facts. No doubt he is right–he is after all writing a play which is entertainment and not primarily history. Mr. Reston, on the other hand, deeply concerned about history, has much less concern than the playwright about entertainment values.

This is the challenge that plays out everyday in the editorial offices of mainstream media (and for that matter, in the minds of those millions of bloggers who also try to build audiences). What is more important–the truth, the facts, balance, objectivity, fairness–or to get people to actually pay attention. There is a crucial difference here: the playwright is clearly and unabashedly in the entertainment business. The historian/researcher is clearly in the history business. But what about journalists. All would be right with the situation at hand if they would just come out and honestly say–“hey folks, somewhere along the line our jobs changed. We are now entertainers. Sure, we’ll try to slip some facts and truth in there when we can, but first and foremost we have to get the biggest audiences we can or we will be out of business.” Actually, as the recent bankruptcy of Tribune company showed, they may be out of business anyway.


One Response to “Nixon and Frost and the blending of history and entertainment”

  1. David Edelstein had a review on NPR’s Fresh Air. To summarize: “It’s hard to turn a political footnote into Richard III.”

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