Learning the news: Stretching reality in entertainment

We all know a lot of our entertainment is ‘inspired by’ true stories, but has that made it harder to tell truth from fiction? asks Roger Plothow.

One of the subplots of the A&E/Netflix series “Longmire” is the mistreatment of American Indians on a Wyoming reservation, and the story line often refers to the history of broken promises between various levels of American government and our indigenous tribes.

Since most anecdotal evidence indicates that Hollywood is generally – but not exclusively – populated by liberals, progressive political themes often show up in our moving pictures, like the show conservatives loved to hate, “West Wing.” On the other hand, if you watched “Magnum , P.I.” regularly you’d get a healthy dose of pro-Second Amendment and pro-military plotting, so you can usually find what you’re looking for if a certain political bent matters to you in your film and TV viewing.

Media literacy is more than just being able to decipher real news from the rest. Understanding and appreciating the various messages and points of view weaved into our movies and television makes for better watching.

For example, how much of “reality TV’ is reality and how much is scripted? If you think court shows like “Judge Judy” are an accurate representation of what goes on inside our justice system, spend a few days in a local courtroom. Judge Judy reflects real law and order about as much as “The Flintstones” tell the actual story of the Stone Age. “The Bachelorette” … well, does anything need to be said?

Some might say – and some often do say to me on social media when I debunk this show or that story – that it really doesn’t matter. Why not let us have a little magic in our lives that allows us to believe that a clothing makeover changes people’s lives? It’s a fair point, and it’s certainly possible to get carried away with correcting every little misstatement or fake doggy video.

My response is pretty simple – there’s a lot of real stuff out there that’s funny, lovely, interesting, compelling, heart-breaking, touching, or astonishing. The more we rely on artificiality to be impressed, the more the envelope gets pushed. The Seventies TV series Happy Days inspired the term “jump the shark” when, as ratings began to decline, writers had Fonzie – leather jacket and all – jump over a shark while wearing water skis.

This isn’t to say, of course, that there is no place for fiction. For starters, however, it should be clearly identified as fiction. The old “based on a true story” line is clear warning that there’s probably not much historical fact in what follows.

The world won’t tumble from its foundations over reality TV or movies with a subtle political message, but our ability to enjoy the moving pictures is magnified when we make a little extra effort to understand the context and nuance found in the best of the medium, and it can help us avoid being fooled by bad products presenting themselves as authentic.

Roger Plothow is editor and publisher of the Post Register. This is part of a weekly year-long series on media literacy.