November 2nd, 2009

Gaslight: November in Media History

Tina Fey and Seth Myers picket at Rockefeller Center.

Tina Fey and Seth Myers picket at Rockefeller Center.

November 5, 2007 marked the first day of a strike by the Writers Guild of America-West and WGA-East which lasted one hundred days. The main issue was the compensation received by writers, which was meager when compared with large studio profits, and also how writers were to be compensated for reality and online content. The WGA strike is significant for many reasons: It was a clear turning point in the business of digital media, cost Hollywood billions of dollars, and drew attention to the plight of thousands of people working behind the scenes of media which most of us take for granted as being free (not to mention illegally downloadable). On February 26, 2008, a new contract was ratified by the union, and writers went back to work with new rights and protections. However, that contract is up in 2011, and a lot can happen between now and then in the world of media and entertainment. The issue will linger as long as we have an Internet, but the WGA strike  represented the arguably first big shot across the bow of the online media business.

On November 13, 1969, United States Vice President Spiro Agnew gave a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, accusing the nation’s television networks of using bias and distortion in their reporting. He further urged viewers to “register their complaints on bias through mail to the networks and phone calls to local stations.” Agnew lamented that the media was dictated by a small group of men, informing the opinions of an estimated 40 millions Americans who watched the nightly news, and who had recently seen several newsmen harshly critique President Nixon’s November 3 speech on Vietnam minutes after it was delivered. Forty years later, this event is especially significant amid the conflict between Barack Obama’s White House and Roger Ailes’ Fox News, with White House Communications Director Anita Dunn saying that the Administration is “not going to legitimize them as a news organization.” Then, as now, the White House was trying to define the meaning and purpose of news, and possibly reign in an independent and free press. In both cases, it seems, the Presidents might have been wishing that Americans were just a little more news literate.

The Hollywood Ten with their lawyers

The Hollywood Ten with their lawyers

November 25, 1947: A group of ten screenwriters and directors, known collectively as “The Hollywood Ten” are fired from their jobs in the first systemic Hollywood blacklist. Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner, Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott and Dalton Trumbo were all held in contempt of court one day prior for refusing to testify before the House of Un-American Activities (HUAC). Ultimately, 41 artists were called to testify, and over 320 people were eventually added to the blacklist that kept them from working in Hollywood. HUAC feared that these artists were  Communists, imbuing their work with propaganda designed to recruit members to the Communist Party. Those who refused to “name names” of anyone they knew who might be a Communist were added to the list, leaving many prominent voices silent, livelihoods destroyed and promising careers cut short. Those who did testify were despised by many of Hollywood’s elite, including Elia Kazan, who, when honored with the 1999 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences, was met with protest; many Oscar attendees refused to stand when he took the podium to accept the award. The blacklisting of the Hollywood 10 was a pivotal moment in American cinematic history, both acknowledging and condemning the power of film.

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