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Matt Laslo 'Shock and Awe' is fake news, Hollywood style — terrible on its own and bad for journalists

Rob Reiner's latest movie makes the media heroes while ignoring their complicity in spreading lies about the Iraq War.
Image: Shock and Awe
Rob Reiner in "Shock and Awe."Vertical Entertainment
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While critics across the board have decried "Shock and Awe" as a terrible movie — and it is — Ron Reiner's mystical love letter to journalists is exactly what our country needs right now: A reminder that Hollywood is who gave the world President Donald J. Trump, the nation’s first reality television president, but the groundwork for convincing the electorate to believe his mendacity was laid long ago.

What many in Hollywood have forgotten, and "Shock and Awe" so vividly displays, is that Trump’s proven and sustained ability to transform reality right in front of the eyes of a large portion of the electorate is a trick that he seems to have honed on the very red carpets on which he’s now routinely cursed.

Reiner's version, though, also sanitizes the collective sins of the nation’s press corps in the lead-up to the Iraq War and focuses instead on the singular work that Knight Ridder did to uncover the lies that were spoon-fed to the public through the nation’s most trusted publications — the ones that influenced the public support for a war that led to the deaths of thousands of soldiers in combat or from suicide upon returning home, let alone the thousands more veterans who emerged from the conflict maimed, limbless or permanently traumatized.

Woody Harrelson and James Marsden in "Shock and Awe."
Woody Harrelson and James Marsden in "Shock and Awe."

By making all of that era's journalists, by extension, into muckraking heroes without acknowledging their initial complicity, Reiner has unleashed Hollywood’s version of “fake news.”

Reiner (who displayed Trump-level-narcissism and cast himself as editor John Walcott), Woody Harrelson, James Marsden and Tommy Lee Jones have made reporting sexy, Hollywood-style, tossing around newsroom clichés like “deep background” (as opposed to medium level background?) and “off-the-record,” along with juvenile phrases like “dick weeds” and “butthole.” And, in the movie, a reporter’s first question to his love interest is “Are you a Republican or a Democrat?” — perpetuating the false binary of a hyper-partisan press corps driven both by right-wing media and uninformed Hollywood elitists (who have controlled much of the media and through it the perception of reality that entire generations of Americans have unwittingly consumed).

For all the film's tired, lazy and misleading storytelling, Reiner — almost accidentally — shows a deep understanding of the contemporary press corps: We’ve become an untrusted cliché of ourselves.

Movies like "Shock and Awe" paint reporters as godlike heroes and have set the bar so impossibly high for actual journalists that many Americans now don’t consume much actual journalism (the three big Info-Tainment networks on cable don’t count) because facts matter and they also have the pesky tendency of being boring.

The average American, however, expect fireworks, flare and drama to sustain their attention even while consuming something as mundane as a well-researched policy piece on Obamacare or tax reform — two laws that touch everyone’s lives in one way or another but that are consistently misunderstood by large swaths of the electorate. That’s a major problem, because the focus of many reporters has slowly evolved into showcasing drama to sustain an audience’s attention for longer than a click.

Our nation has become oversaturated with information even as Americans seem to be more uninformed than ever, which is perhaps why many people eagerly accept nice-sounding myths and outright falsehoods wrapped in the guise of a shiny headline.

"Shock and Awe" and other newsroom docudramas or films play into these myths of journalism and journalists, wrapping narratives of who we are and what we do into hagiographies and bedazzled packages. Good reporters don’t make speeches or drive agendas: They mostly ask questions, shut up, accurately record what people say, fish around in documents when a story doesn’t add up and then write a coherent string of sentences. More often than not, it's drudgery, not excitement.

And we’re not an elite group of intellectual gatekeepers: We’re error-prone humans just like our audiences.

That’s why the support that today’s press corps truly needs from Hollywood isn’t a sanitized tale highlighting the sole bright spot in one of biggest journalistic scandals of our generation. "Shock and Awe" only shows us the heroes of a time when the press unwittingly laid down on the job and allowed our pens to be used as propaganda tools.

In this era where the press is decried as “the enemy,” it’s important for journalists to take a hard look in the mirror and get our own houses in order before we start declaring ourselves the savior figures that we all know we’re not.

It also seems like a great time for Hollywood to do the same because, over the years, the self-anointed purveyors of all things culture unwittingly eroded the attention spans and intelligence of our shared audience. And, in the process, they seem to have accidentally turned what was once boring American politics into a terrible reality show.

CLARIFICATION (Aug. 23, 2018, 4:20 p.m.): An earlier version of this article implied that Knight Ridder's work was exclusively published after the Iraq War began. Much of that reporting was done prior to the war, as the article now indicates. In addition, the article has been changed to better reflect the author's view that the movie falsely turns all of the era's journalists into muckraking heroes.

Matt Laslo is a reporter who has written for NPR, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The Guardian and VICE News, among others. He's also an adjunct professor teaching regularly at The Johns Hopkins University and has taught at Boston University and The University of Maryland.

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