René Duprée’s massive, 6’3” 250-pound body struts onto the stage. Surrounded by blaring music, fireworks and artificially-enhanced women gyrating in skin-tight outfits, he flexes his substantial muscles and waves the French flag. In no hurry, he sneers at the crowd as he moves towards the ring. Upon relieving the announcer of the microphone, his booming voice declares to the overwrought crowd, “Je vous annonce que je suis fabuleux!” (“I tell you that I am fabulous!”) His accent betrays the fact that he is not French, rather French-Canadian, but no one seems to observe or care about the nuance: they clearly hate the guy.
Professional wrestling does not, however, have a monopoly on explosive visual and audio pyrotechnics. While one might expect to find such eye-popping, channel surfing-stopping exhibitions on MTV or Monday Night Football, a 24-hour news network would be less obvious. Nevertheless, Fox News does not disappoint. Tune in seeking to find out what is going on in the world and be barraged by screaming opinion show hosts, wagging fingers, whirling graphics, smiling commentators and breaking news “alerts” for stories that might normally be considered banal. We can be thankful for being unable to view the spectators, but one might imagine their reactions to be equally rapturous.
Young men always have been, and most assuredly always will be, enthralled by gladiator-like sports heroes and the accompanying Bacchanalian festivities. Nonetheless, a considerable amount of the appeal in professional wrestling can be attributed to simplicity of the plot lines and even more so to the lack of subtlety in the characters. While the sophistication of the shows has evolved somewhat from good guys in white and bad guys in black, the positions of the performers are easily discernable to even the most casual observers. Even so, for the spectacularly obtuse, the World Wrestling Entertainment web site provides the following in Mr. Duprée’s profile: “At the height of recent tension between the U.S. and France, the pompous Frenchman [once again, he is Canadian] debuted using the conflict as a platform to promote French culture and his claim of French superiority over that of any other nation or culture in the world!” As a result, like students attending a high-school football game, no one is ever encumbered by uncertainty about for whom to root.
Fox News provides the same soothing clarity. The complex issues of our day are quickly and effortlessly dismantled into their good and evil components. The Republican Party, for its part, has also seized upon this powerful tool. The “you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us” mentally relieves people of the mental struggle of having to determine if, well, someone is with us or against us. Cognitive dissonance is not an obstacle. Liberals deride conservatives for living in their condition of conflict resulting from their inconsistencies, but Fox News solves this issue by simply not addressing it. How was the Republican Party’s reaction to Terri Schiavo coherent with its views on federalism? How can we be for fiscal responsibility but not against the budget deficit? How can we be against stem cell research yet for IVF? If the War on Terror is of such monumental importance to every American, how come only a very few are being asked to sacrifice anything for it? There apparently is not much to be gained by muddling everyone’s brains with these dilemmas.
Eventually, however, professional wrestling has had to grapple with the obvious: that it is fake. There is no denying that the participants are impressive physical specimens, or that their craft requires extraordinary athletic ability, or that they invariably incur substantial bodily pain during their matches; but despite the fact that any elementary school student of average intelligence could plainly see that the bouts and ancillary theatrics are all choreographed, professional wrestling fought hard against admitting as such. John Stossel, a journalist for ABC, while doing an expose for 20/20 in 1984, famously told David Schultz, aka Dr. D. (no specificity on whether it’s an M.D. or Ph.D.), that he thought professional wrestling was fake, prompting the 6’8” 280- pound wrester to hit him upside the head, yelling, “You think it’s fake?” Mr. Schultz was fired by the World Wrestling Federation, but maintained that he was ordered to attack Mr. Stossel. Either way, while professional wrestling worked hard to support the frail illusion that the matches and soap opera antics were real, they finally succumbed. Vince Russo, one of wrestling’ s best scriptwriters, discusses this fact in a recently released documentary, “Pro Wrestling’s Ultimate Insiders.” “It’s not rocket science,” he says while talking about the story lines he fabricated. “Put your finger on the pulse and give the people what they want.” Ultimately, the World Wrestling Federation, under pressure from the World Wildlife Fund (also WWF), but also to a certain extent in acknowledgement of the scripted nature of their business, even changed its name to World Wrestling Entertainment.
No one should hold his or her breath waiting for Fox News to change its name to Fox Entertainment, but it would not be entirely inappropriate. Sure they discuss issues of the day, and sure they introduce facts here and there, and sure they send personnel into the field to interview people; but despite the fact that any reasonably balanced individual with a modicum of sense of reality can plainly see that the coverage is egregiously slanted, Fox News continues to call itself “fair and balanced.” There are innumerable anecdotes that could be presented here to make this case, but “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism,” a brilliant documentary by director Robert Greenwald, does a wonderful job at chronicling how the network misrepresents facts, manufactures terror and slanders liberals and adulates the President, all with the sole purpose of advancing its right-wing agenda. The film uncovers daily internal memos that outline conservative talking points, nonconformists that are threatened with their jobs and correspondents that often do not even pretend to be impartial. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) correctly accused Fox News of being “an adjunct of the Republican Party.” As far as journalism is concerned, it is difficult to avoid remarking the obvious: that it is fake.
In the end, though, the general public will inevitably catch on, or, having done so long ago, grow bored, rendering the medium something somewhat less than it used to be. Professional wrestling still captivates a depressingly wide audience, but its heyday must have been in October 1999 when World Wrestling Entertainment (NYSE:WWE) launched its IPO. The stock debuted around $25, but quickly plummeted and has languished under $15 for over four years, briefly dropping below $8 at a couple points. Pay-per-view sales have been weak and attendance at live events has been dropping since 2001. There has even been a class-action lawsuit against the company alleging violation of federal securities laws during the IPO. So what is the company’s strategy for liberating itself from these doldrums? Expand internationally. To what degree and for how long foreign markets will be enchanted by fake sports entertainment of such a uniquely American variety remains to be seen, but perhaps there will at least be an opportunity for Mr. Duprée to perform in his native France.
Fox News has yet to suffer a similar fate, presumably because, for the most part, viewers do not regard it as fake. It became the number one prime time cable news network sometime in 2001 and has not looked back since. There have been some signs of weakness, with CNN reporting in April this year that Fox News’ viewership of adults between 25 and 54 had dropped for six consecutive months for a total decline of 58%, but since Katrina the network has come back strong. This is unfortunate since, unlike professional wrestling, Fox News has an impact on society at large, influencing popular perception and by extension public policy and elections. Certainly there will always be individuals willing to sit on their sofas day in and day out, lapping up conservative propaganda, but at some point one has to hope that people will catch on to the fact that it is entertainment rather than news and conduct their lives accordingly.