The Fox Hunt
I have seen the light--or more precisely, the cathode ray. I used to passively accept the standard rap on Rupert Murdoch: that he's a right-wing megalomaniac who has accumulated the tightest stranglehold on media power and influence since Hearst walked the earth. Lock your doors and bar your windows--or your Windows 98, at least--because Rupe will find you where you live.
Maybe the villain in the last James Bond movie, a publishing titan trying to maneuver Britain and China into a war whose coverage he could control, stretched Murdoch's actual ambitions beyond their borders. But not by much. He has already tried to scotch the memoir of former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten because he feared its capacity to antagonize China--an almost wholly untapped media market whose 1.3 billion citizens surely endured civil war, famine, and harsh repression in order to obtain that ultimate signal of cultural arrival, When Animals Attack III. Can Murdoch's geopolitical bullying be far behind? Who wins when Murdoch's industry-crossing, continent-bridging, liberal-routing empire jousts with Disney's omnipotent kingdom, as it no doubt will? Are we beholding good against evil (King Kong vs. Godzilla) or just two villains having at it (Mothra vs. Godzilla)? And what are the viewer's chances of participating in this media war without becoming a casualty (Godzilla vs. Bambi)?
After watching a few weeks of the Fox network's most characteristic (and most successful) product, the so-called shockumentary, I'm no closer to answering those questions. The experience has, however, revealed some cracks in Rupe's façade. Fox's programming certainly encourages a worldview that nurtures rampaging capitalism, vigilanteism, authoritarianism, survivalism, and, every once in a while, ordinary jism. But the cynical viewer--and is there any other kind?--can find ways to watch this stuff without automatically subscribing for a lifetime NRA membership.
Learning a lesson from the success of wildly successful "Reality TV" programming like Cops and America's Most Wanted, Fox has expertly built a flexible, infinitely repeatable apparatus around the frisson of realism. Police tapes, animal attacks, riots, magic--done right, almost anything can be eviscerated and opened up for your viewing pleasure. ("Ooh," an excited Homer Simpson exclaimed a few weeks back on that other Fox program, "When Animals Attack Magicians!") This is not as easy as it sounds. Deny viewers their customary gore or T&A, and off to cable they go. And woe betide the program that exposes myths we would rather cherish. Consider, for instance, NBC's recent attempt to jump on the bandwagon with its pro-wrestling exposé. Laid bare, in a tone of high dudgeon, was the distressing truth that wrestling is--gasp!--fake. No doubt numerous eight-year-olds were deeply traumatized by this revelation. (Next week: Sea-Monkeys are really just brine shrimp!)
Much in the same mode is Fox's recurring Secrets of Magic Revealed, which has the joyless destructiveness of that scene in Rushmore where Bill Murray swats away a five-year-old's lay-up. Despite poll numbers that document how fervently large numbers of Americans believe in angels and alien visitors, I would go out on a limb and predict that most of us know you cannot pull a rabbit out of a hat or make the Statue of Liberty disappear. Nonetheless, our narrator takes us backstage with a polite condescension that indicts the viewer as at best a mark and at worst a sucker. As a result, the magic exposés feel acutely disappointing. Instead of the populist identification that drives the best shockumentaries (in which you switch from victim to authority), these specials humiliate: Oh, is that all they do? How stupid of me to have fallen for it.
This tone works better, if to much more insidious effect, on the various cop ride-along programs. Indeed, the whole production comes wrapped in the most scrupulously moral packaging, just like those titillating tabloid exposés that assure us every so often that we must read on and be instructed as to how disgustingly far some people can fall. "The following footage contains behavior so scandalous it speaks for itself," Fox Files tells us before doling out five full minutes of Michigan State students tearing up Lansing after their loss to Duke. In other words, gather round, kids, and revel in the riot! (Historical note: This genre boasts a rich lineage, from pamphlets attacking Marie Antoinette's shockingly, shockingly immoral personal conduct during the French Revolution to the anti-Catholic sensation literature that leaped off the shelves in mid-nineteenth-century America. Which is to say that a great many people like their pornography leavened with what passes for good intentions.) Thus World's Wildest Police Videos opens with an explanation that, although what we are about to see prominently features drug use, drinking, violence, profanity, and other injurious material, we are doing ourselves good by tuning in: "Knowledge," after all, "is power."
What precisely might constitute such "knowledge" is rather a puzzle. Don't let drunk teenagers steal your car? Don't try to drive your municipal bus to Waco to buy crack? But once we've been escorted through the curtain, nobody cares. And truth be told, this stuff is addictive. You start jonesing for a smashup, because unlike some computer-imaged action flick in which we know Will Smith didn't really just dodge a semi, these police chases have the thrillingly human depth of real life. In my favorite scene, an underage girl pulled over for DUI climbs into the front seat of the police car and drives off, sobbing in disbelief all the way. Before eluding numerous traps and spinning out 20 minutes later, she rams two other cruisers for good measure. In the hands of, say, Dennis Cooper, that's an entire novel, or maybe it's Harmony Korine's next film.
The Murdochian part of these shows is that you keep getting urged to take the side of law enforcement. Watching a parade of abusive drunks, rambling speed freaks, and dangerously irresponsible joy-riding teens, you can't help but feel more than a twinge of sympathy for officers who have to put up with this crap on a daily basis. But--and here's where Murdoch's politics sneak up on you--Fox isn't content with that twinge of sympathy. No, they want your uncritical empathy: Anything the police do is justified. In the face of such apparently rampant lawlessness, extreme measures are clearly demanded. Fox craves riots and bloodshed (without them, there's no show), but even more it craves the authority to put them down. You get your fill of blood and guts, and then the moral whacks you on the head: Keep your hands inside the ride at all times and obey the law.
Ultimately, though, these shows don't universally succeed in softening the audience for the iron fist. Millions watch these shows, but how many turn them off with their faith in God, country, and the local constabulary secure? How many end the hour surging with an adrenaline rush for annihilation? Are audiences newly wary after witnessing how insistently the channel prods you to love law and order? Too hung up on moral instruction to be truly carnivalesque, Fox shockumentaries stamp on your fun with such blunt determination that (I'd like to think) they produce their own resistance.
But maybe not. Maybe we all turn our minds off when watching these shows and don't take in what they're striving so hard to sell us. In which case let's bring this out into the open. Here's hoping that Michael Moore, never one for a stiletto when a sledgehammer will do, devotes an episode of his new Bravo show to a lefty take on this topic. I've even got the perfect title: When Cops Attack.
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