Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

The more Trump attacks, the more popular culture articulates, celebrates role of the press

President Donald Trump calls us liars, haters, enemies of the people and scum.

On Wednesday, he upped the ante and threatened to take away press credentials from some outlets.

And you know what I say in response?

Thank you, sir, may we have another. The more obvious your desire to cow us into submission becomes, the more the story of how democracy depends on our freedom is sounded and heard.

I say that after screening Part 1 of the documentary series “The Fourth Estate,” scheduled to debut on Showtime on May 27. The four-part series from filmmaker Liz Garbus takes viewers inside The New York Times as it tries to cover the most unconventional president in U.S. history.

While the look is fly-on-the-wall objective, the film has a decided point of view, which it does not try to hide.

You can get a sense of that p.o.v. from this description on the Showtime website: “Oscar nominated Liz Garbus chronicles the tenacious men and women in the trenches who are fighting for the freedom of the press and America’s right to know.”

“The Fourth Estate” is a smart, deep and totally engaging documentary. But what I really love about it is the way this series illuminates the higher end of American journalism and articulates the dedication by many of its practitioners to serving the civic life of the nation by bringing citizens information they can trust instead of propaganda and lies from the White House.

It is part of a larger movement within popular culture that has been taking place since the election of Trump with his repeated attacks on the press and claims that leading sources of information, like The New York Times Times, Washington Post and CNN, are fake news. The films, documentary series, ads, TV shows, promotional campaigns and YouTube videos within that movement are an attempt to respond to a growing a realization among members of the public and the press that our information ecosystem has become flooded with disinformation, propaganda and lies. With that realization has come a deeper understanding among some that a democracy cannot function without a source of reliable, vetted, fact-based information that citizens can trust.

The movement includes Steven Spielberg’s feature film, “The Post,” which premiered in December and told the story of the Washington’s Post’s role in 1971 in publishing the Pentagon Papers, a previously secret government history of America’s role in Vietnam that was decidedly at odds with what administrations from Presidents Eisenhower to Nixon had been saying publicly.

While Spielberg can be faulted on historical perspective for minimizing the role of The New York Times, which was the first news organization to publish any of the documents, his film tells a compelling story of a newspaper standing up to an administration bent on bringing the press to heel and keeping Americans in darkness about the extent of our nation’s failure in Vietnam. After Nixon’s White House got a restraining order halting the publication of the papers by The Times, The Post stepped up and started publishing them.

Several reviewers noted the similarities between Trump and Nixon as press haters. In fact, it was all but impossible not to watch the film through the lens of Trump’s press-hating ways and cheer on those fighting for “freedom of the press and America’s right to know,” as Showtime puts in promoting “The Fourth Estate.”

There are other variations of this theme headed to the screen.

A Hollywood deal was made last month, according to Deadline, for a film about New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey reporting the stories that ended the career of Harvey Weinstein, Hollywood mogul and sexual predator. Their stories, done under the direction of Rebecca Corbett, a former Sun editor, won a Pulitzer last month and helped spark the #MeToo movement. Plan B, the company making the film, has a track record that includes such productions as “12 Years a Slave” and “Moonlight.”

Nothing is more ubiquitous in popular culture than advertising by major brands, and the two biggest names in journalism made major branding moves last year tied to the issues of information, fact, truth, transparency and democracy.

In February 2017, The Post adopted a slogan that now sits atop its homepage: “Democracy dies in darkness.” Think how many millions of readers have unconsciously absorbed that message as they scanned the page for breaking news.

That same month, The New York Times launched its “the truth is hard” campaign that directly addressed our polluted information ecosystem in the Trump era.

Using only black words on a white background, the ad offers a series of statements anchored by the phrase, “The truth is.”

It starts with, "The truth is alternative facts are lies.” Then, “The truth is the media is dishonest.” It speeds through a rush of conflicting statements, with an increasingly shrill and angry caccophony of voices rising in the background, until all you have is a blur of words and wall of noise.

And then the screen goes blank and the soundtrack silent.

The words that appear in boldface against a clean backdrop: "The truth is hard. The truth is hard to know. The truth is more important than ever."

Almost 16 million have viewed the YouTube video of the ad so far.

"There's a national dialogue going on now about facts and truth and how does one know what the truth is," Times senior vice president David Rubin told Ad Age in explaining the campaign.. "We saw an opportunity to be part of that dialogue. We also found in our research that people don't always understand what it takes to do quality original reporting, but when they do, when that becomes part of the dialogue — about how one finds the truth and about the role journalists can play, they are more interested in supporting it."

CNN has led the way on television with its campaign anchored by the ad that begins with a picture of an apple.

“This is an apple,” a narrator begins. “Some people might tell you it’s a banana.They might scream, banana, banana, banana, over and over and over again. They might put BANANA in all caps. You might even start to believe that it’s a banana. But it’s not. This is an apple. Facts first. CNN.”

The Sun, too, joined in last year with a campaign that says: “JOURNALISM MATTERS now more than ever.” I have a company-issued T-shirt with that emblazoned on the front, and I wear it proudly.

This is a narrative that desperately needs to be told over and over and over again, to quote the CNN ad. And we in the press had done a dismal job for decades of telling it.

There are myriad reasons for that. For most of the second half of the 20th century, the press was so fat, dominant and happy that it didn’t feel a need to explain its role in a democracy or sell itself to the public. And within the culture of print journalism, there has long been a kind of false modesty. I say false because it is really built on a feeling of superiority that we didn’t have to sell ourselves like the folks on TV did.

But what revolutionary change in technology and lifestyle didn’t manage to do in convincing us that a new day has dawned, a president who dissembles, distorts, lies and recklessly attacks has. Trump’s assaults on media and truth have awakened not just journalists to the need to make our case, but filmmakers, novelists, cartoonists, poets, musicians, dancers, comedians and a host of others whose lives are deeply intertwined with free expression and the search for truth.

So, keep your attacks coming, Mr. President. The more you attack and the more you tweet about fake news, the louder the chorus grows and the smarter citizens get about how important the First Amendment is — and what an absolute danger you are to it in your autocratic tendencies and consummate dishonesty.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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