Revelations in Media
It’s quite acceptable to dismiss “The Media” these days as a craven, bottom-line driven industry that caters to the lowest common denominator. It is easy to find appalling examples of a lack of interest in the public interest, but I think it’s important not to forget the good work that media can do . . . . even when it’s not trying to do anything good at all.
Just last week, the American Civil Liberties Union launched a new project called Rights/Camera/Action. Through their focus groups and research, ACLU recognized that entertainment and the arts have a profound impact on American public opinion about civil liberties. To kick-off the initiative, I moderated a panel on the topic at their national membership conference. The panel included a delicious selection of artists, from internationally acclaimed playwright Ariel Dorfman, who wrote Death and the Maiden, to actor Kal Penn, star of the raunchy Harold & Kumar movie franchise. Most of the panel was composed of successful documentary filmmakers, who have attracted awards and occasionally record-breaking box-office dollars to serious films tackling tough issues. While the topics of their films range from tragic miscarriages of justice in North Carolina to institutionalized torture in Afghanistan, one common thread in their work is the benefit of exposing information to the broadest possible audience. Whether it’s the citizens of Winston, North Carolina, reading a series of articles in the local paper or ACLU members gathering at someone’s house to watch Taxi to the Dark Side, or even stoned teenagers at the Cineplex watching Harold and Kumar escape from Guantanamo Bay, the media – for good and for ill – has the power to pull people together and, for a precious moment or two, provide them with a shared experience that may just lead to an idea, a conversation, or a new way of looking at the world.
According to actor Kal Penn, the creators of Harold & Kumar had no interest whatsoever in stirring any political pots when they decided to send Harold and Kumar to Gitmo. The filmmakers knew they’d be pushing people’s buttons, but they didn’t necessarily have an agenda when they let the boys get high with President Bush at his Crawford ranch.
But an agenda’s not necessary to have an impact. An audience is.