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The rise of ‘combatant cable news’

“I’m sick of watching it.”

“No one is actually doing their jobs of journalism.”

“Entertainment is more valuable to them at this moment than politics, which is the reverse of our social contract.”

These are some of the passionate responses made after a viewing of the documentary “Best of Enemies,” hosted by Hawaiʻi Women in Filmmaking.

Launching the new season of Indie Lens Pop-Up, HWF opened its space to the community for a viewing of the political documentary by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon that showed how televised debates paved the way for “the combatant cable news of today.” Neville and Gordon revisited the legendary 1968 debates between conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. and leftist Gore Vidal during the Democratic and Republican national conventions, and by doing so, exposed the early beginnings of viewing politics on the small screen.

Even though these debates occurred nearly 50 years ago, much of what was filmed looked eerily similar to what is being seen and heard today. Violence at rallies, the dominance of a single race in attendance — Buckley being surrounded by crowds of only white people chanting his name brought comparisons to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s rallies — and the role that media plays in how Americans view political figures.

HWF opened the event questioning if debates affect how we vote. Few people in the audience remarked how the role of debates changed with time. Someone commented how in the past it was harder to know about the candidates and so they had a role, and they still have one at the very beginning of the race.

Audience discussing about debates

Vera, HWF founder and executive director, posed the question of how these debates were set up. Were Buckley and Vidal, such staunch polar opposites, pitted together for the sheer purpose of spectacle?

Turns out, they were. The debates between Buckley and Vidal were media gimmicks concocted by network outlet ABC in order to boost ratings during the national conventions.

Post-showing, everyone gathered around in a circle to enjoy light refreshments and share their thoughts.

University of Hawaiʻi political science professor Michael Shapiro facilitated the round-table discussion that addressed the issue of media and politics — be it through television or as a documentary. He said that media in any form, be it documentary, film or photography, can serve as a way for people to help them understand what happened.

“When something happens, the first reaction is: apprehend it. Apprehension isn’t necessarily comprehension. We haven’t quite come to terms with it,” Shapiro said. “It’s negotiating how we’re going to come to terms. It’s not necessarily closure.”

But as the documentary so highlighted, the television gave rise to the popularity of these figures. Buckley and Vidal essentially set the precedents for political pundits of news outlets and cable networks such as CNN and Fox News. From that, then raised the question of if the increase in screen time increases popularity and therefore wins the election. Does a candidate need to be a celebrity to win an election? Does the prevalence of media presence by a figure influence public opinion more than what the candidates actually stand for?

One community member in attendance wanted to know. She explained this concern recalling a segment she saw on television. She said the conversation became how millenials were oblivious to who Vice President Joe Biden was, but knew who reality TV-star Kim Kardashian was. This made her wary of this year’s election and the ones to come.

“For our current presidential election, and our future ones, do you have to be a celebrity to win?” she asked. “For Hillary Clinton, she’s been around for a long and everyone knows who she is by virtue of her husband. Donald Trump is in the media and that’s how everyone knows who he is. All of the other candidates have fallen by the wayside largely because they don’t have name recognition. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if people simply are too busy trying to make ends meet… to really pay attention to details and go with who they recognize.”

Shapiro posed the rhetoric of how much could people really afford to pay attention to when people of today have so many other stresses in their lives.

But yet another community member who is trying to pay attention to the news shared her outrage. She feels that the news isn’t actually covering news.

“I mean I’m sick of watching it,” she said. “Every morning, I listen to NPR, I’m sick of the media repeating what the candidates are saying. And it’s not news. It’s like the whole rest of the world doesn’t exist. No one is actually doing their jobs of journalism. They’re just perpetuating rumors.”

By producing Indie Lens Pop-Up, HWF brings people together for film screenings and community-driven conversations. Featuring documentaries seen on PBS's Independent Lens, Indie Lens Pop-Up draws local residents, leaders and organizations to discuss what matters most, from newsworthy topics, to family and relationships.

All Indie Lens Pup-Up events presented by HWF are free and open to the public.

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