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Reality Bites

but is the truth any better?

"Reality entertainment." Postmodernism at its peak. A true catchphrase of the late 1990s. Fox has built an empire on it – dominating primetime ratings in the key young-male demographic with their World's Scariest Police Chases VII and When Animals Attack 4. It's kind of sad that the world has become so artificial that reality must be reintroduced, but what may be even sadder is the recent wave of "reality" shows that are, in fact, fiction. Turns out, America does need its entertainment in small simulated doses, even though we like to be told that it's real.

Our obsession with reality TV (recently foregrounded in the Oscar®-nominated The Truman Show) can be traced to the 1989 premiere of Cops, a program which chronicles real-life stories of police officers in action. Production values were low and profit margins high as Fox shot everything live and then made a killing in the ratings. "Real live" law enforcement was soon a national pastime as the nation sat, transfixed, during the live trial of William Kennedy Smith on Court TV. But as we rolled through the daytime-talk-show boom into the mid-90s, the rules began to change.

After a while, the novelty waned. Was reality entertaining enough? Jerry Springer became successful, dominating daytime talk to this day, with his style of agitated reality: starting with real people in real situations but adding a little to get them at each other's throats and make it "more interesting" for television. Springer has never convincingly denied the multiple rumors that most of his shows are faked.

The paramount example of simulated reality in the early days was Dateline NBC. As part of a story about pickup trucks that were dangerously explosive due to their particularly vulnerable fuel tank placement, reporters wired a test truck to explode when impacted by a test car. The network argued that the truck would have exploded anyway, and they were simply making it more dramatic for the audience. This is fine for Schwarzenegger movies, but when a program professes to report news, the creation of drama shouldn't be a consideration. Dateline apologized of course, then returned directly to business as usual.

NBC's attitude, that as long as something seemed real, you may as well tell an audience that it is, continues to this day. The network broadcast the Olympic Games from Barcelona and Nagano using a technique they dubbed "plausibly live." Because events were occurring half a world away, live coverage would have been in the wee hours of morning, but since NBC didn't edit the tape or redub commentary after the fact, the network decided their primetime coverage may as well be called "live."

In 1992, MTV's The Real World appeared. Each week a selected handful of Gen-X-ers gave us a peek at their day-to-day reality. But how real were they? Documentary editor Bill Haugse, co-editor of the acclaimed documentary Hoop Dreams, worked on the program for a time, and laments the its inherent commerciality – prioritizing entertainment over truth. "[Essentially,] attractive young people are hired to live in a house for x weeks and improvise stories," he remarks. And, since they've seen previous seasons of The Real World and countless sitcoms, the subjects have a preconception of what people act like on television. "They do their level best to provide exactly what is expected. They do have different characteristics as normal human beings, but they become key-word personalities [in the minds of the producers] – The Rebel, The Deb, The Smartie..." To make it easier to watch (read: easier to sell), truth was often smoothed over. Haugse recalls constructing a scene many of us remember well, where a young man is attempting to end his relationship with his girlfriend back home. At first, his scene was "cut with some gravity and respect for the post-adolescent drama," but the producers shortened Haugse's original version, adding sound bites from the interview to "puncture the drama, and make it more understandable, acceptable." Haugse sums it up: "We were supplying viewers of a certain age range to advertisers, BEFORE we were doing anything else." Why, then, tell an audience that it's truth? MTV irresponsibly markets a "reality" that is in fact nearly impossible for the subjects to deliver.

So, the mere presence of the camera has an effect on the events unfolding before it. No real surprise; Hollywood is inherently dishonest. Most of us accept that on some level. What we might not expect is fabrication at work behind the scenes of a program that presents itself as news. As "newsmagazine" shows dominate the primetime airwaves (How many times does Dateline air in one week now? Twelve?) we are bombarded more and more often with information that is for sale. Competing for ratings, each program feels pressure to come up with fresher and more intriguing subject matter. The result is that the truth is fabricated or manipulated in order to create more enticing "news packages." Dateline has a tendency to decide how they want their story to look before their investigation begins, then select from their collected footage only that which creates the desired effect. Sound familiar? MTV started the ball rolling, and the influence has already spread to a program that markets itself under the division "NBC News."

Of course we scan ridiculous Enquirer headlines at the checkstand every week, but we know better than to trust them. Enquirer does not carry the authority of "Newsweek" or "Scientific American". Tabloids and tabloid shows like Hard Copy are reckless, but not as irresponsible as the newsmagazine shows which script a story and continue to package it as fact. Over time, legitimate news organizations have gained our respect and trust. Shattering that trust puts all information in question. And that's just the beginning. CNN was recently retracted an erroneous report on biological warfare testing, admitting that their assertions were unfounded. Mike Barnicle, a prominent reporter at the Boston Globe , was forced to resign after it came to light that many of his frequent sources were in fact fictional characters he had created. And the Monica Lewinsky scandal changed everything. Desperate to "scoop" each other, newspapers abandoned the time-consuming practice of checking their sources before they went to press. A senior writer at the L.A. Times informed a class full of his college students that the paper had taken to publishing unsubstantiated hearsay in order to keep up with other news media.

In journalistic terms, this is absolutely indefensible. In a developing world culture in which information is increasingly important, we cannot survive if we cannot depend upon the validity of our information sources. Building criticism in the wake of the CNN and Boston Globe incidents has improved awareness of the crisis at hand, and we can only hope that further investigation will bring about changes in the way facts are checked and presented.

"The most pathos for me in reviewing these dailies," remembers Bill Haugse, "was seeing, over and over, the subjects' often vain attempts to keep secrets here and there, a whispered aside, a shared look let slip before the camera. These occasional flashes of real personality are not paydirt in 'The Real World,' though; they're like errors. The material which we can use is that in which they remember to speak up, and show everything as much as possible on camera. But those tiny flashes of their secret world showed me that they knew very well when the curtain was up and when it was down. And gave me hope for those kids." It gives me hope, too – for an America that wakes up to this trend before real truth is lost, and the curtain goes up forever. All the world's a stage...