Entertaining politics

Total Recall

October 09, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Things were already weird. And they're getting weirder.

As supporters cheered the strapping Republican action star - the next governor of California - his doting wife, the longtime NBC News correspondent, stood to his left. Stationed just behind was his exuberant father-in-law, a lifelong liberal who was Democrat George S. McGovern's running mate in 1972.

This wasn't a scene "ripped from the headlines," like Dick Wolf's ever-expanding Law & Order empire. This is the headline. And here's another: The thin, fragile membrane separating news from entertainment, fact from fantasy, appears to have disintegrated entirely.

If anyone would recognize that development, it's Martin Kaplan, a former journalist, Democratic strategist and screenwriter. "People actually experience their own lives as entertainment," argues Kaplan, now director of the Lear Center at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication. "Tragedy, age, the reality of inequity - all that has taken a back seat to the gauzy, scripted romance of melodrama.

"Politics has had to align itself to conform to that," Kaplan says. "So has journalism."

In California, Arnold Schwarzenegger's gubernatorial campaign was launched by a surprise announcement to Jay Leno on NBC's Tonight Show - reportedly a cause of consternation to Leno's colleagues at the network news division, which likes to break stories itself.

Democratic Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina kept a promise last month by formally announcing his candidacy for president on Comedy Central's satiric The Daily Show. Edwards' move immediately inspired a Daily Show correspondent to question his sanity for appearing on so trivial a program. But other politicians with aspirations for higher office routinely troop through the program's New York studios.

The first lady-to-be of California, Maria Shriver, is on leave as an NBC reporter who has covered politics and celebrity news. She belongs to two celebrated American political dynasties, the Shrivers and the Kennedys. (Her father, Sargent Shriver, was a friend and aide to President Kennedy and ran for vice president in 1972.) But she had not played a highly visible role in the run for governor by her husband, Schwarzenegger.

But when he drew a media scrum last week for sensational allegations that he had repeatedly sexually harassed women, she popped up beside him. Shriver invoked her status as a wife, mother and Democrat in denouncing the allegations, published in the Los Angeles Times. "I don't believe in gutter journalism," the network news correspondent said.

The erosions of old definitions make life complicated. NBC News chief Neal Shapiro says California news will be off-limits to Shriver. And he has said he'll talk with her before she returns from her leave. But she's welcome back at the network.

"There's still a wide array of topics that involves the 49 other states, human-interest stories, celebrity interviews, newsmaker interviews, that don't involve her husband," explains NBC News spokeswoman Caryn Mautner. "This is certainly not a new area for her. She's always found a balance between her personal and professional life."

Meanwhile, in Washington, the new sensation is HBO's K Street, the creation of director Steven Soderbergh and actor and producer George Clooney. In the stylish weekly TV show, real-life politicians, consultants and journalists mingle with fictional counterparts. Mary Matalin and James Carville, the married politicos, play recurring characters - themselves. Sens. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, and Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, are among those who appeared on the most recent episode.

Here's a quick example of our looking-glass world: Political operatives turned television commentators are playing themselves on the fictional HBO program advising real-world politicians whose policies they now critique for cable news programs.

After the 2000 release of Soderbergh's Traffic, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch said he regretted having appeared as himself in the film about government efforts to combat the drug trade because of its "gratuitous amount of violence and profanity."

This fall, though, Hatch could be seen on the pilot of K Street. He spent part of his time on the air pitching his new music CD.

The blurring of the line is not altogether new.

In 1988, HBO broadcast the political satire Tanner '88, starring actor Michael Murphy as a candidate for office stalking around New Hampshire as real politicians wandered into view. Gary Ross, once a speechwriter for Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, wrote the screenplay for the 1993 movie Dave, in which actor Kevin Kline played a man who pretended to be the president after the real one suffered a heart attack. Real senators and journalists appeared throughout the movie, commenting on the fictional president's new ideological tack.

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