Sunday, May 15, 2011

Classics: B5 4:8 - The Illusion of Truth

Overall: 9.0

JMS hates journalists. He really, really hates them. Fortunately, we do too.

Plot Synopsis:

The Lurker's Guide reports on ISN's perfidy here.

The Skinny:

Stephanie S.: My co-author and I seem to disagree slightly when it comes to this episode. I feel that in the contest between And Now For a Word and The Illusion of Truth, the latter turns out to be the weaker of the two. ISN's cant here is far more overtly Orwellian, and while I appreciate a homage as much as the next person, I do think the blatant nature of Randall's hatchet job renders it a little less applicable to real-world, present-day realities (unless we're talking about Michael Moore's "documentaries").

Nonetheless, I rate this episode very highly, and I do so because JMS's purposeful exaggerations still perform a vital service by revealing just how easy it is to distort the facts with a bit of editing. Even if it is the case that most journalists don't play with the raw footage the way Randall does here, we still shouldn't take their reports and analyses on faith. As Randall correctly observes, everyone has an agenda.

SABR Matt: I think that this episode's strength lies in the subtlety with which the subterfuge was accomplished. They spared none of the little details...everything that was in the preamble to the newscast...and in the newscast itself...was necessary to feel the full emotional impact of this dramatic hour of television. Letting us hear the true motivations of the people involved - e.g. Sheridan's fears about his father's fate, Franklin's fond hope that they'll be able to treat the TPs with shadow-abuse syndrome sooner, rather than later, Delenn's sincere desire to repay her allies for all their help during the shadow war, Londo's completely irrelevant conversation about the heat in his quarters, Lenier's points about the social programs Sheridan has instituted for the sufferers in Down Below - and then showing it to us again in the newscast with a completely twisted view of the evidence and yet only very minor edits to the raw footage...was truly brilliant.

I'll reference my sister's thoughts from the previous ISN-centered episode "And Now for a Word"...she took great pains to document all of the most common tricks a propagandist uses to sway public opinion when looking at the same evidence. Marginalize your opponent by portraying rational emotional reactions as irrational anger. Show evidence and then treat your analysis of that evidence as fact, rather than supposition. Appeal to experts who'll say what you need them to say as though those experts are truly objective and their opinions superior. Treat inconsistencies as concrete evidence of dangerous conspiracy. Level unsubstantiated charges at your opponent - just the charge is damaging, whether it gains traction in fact or not. Establish the mood you want to elicit in your readers/viewers with selective language (e.g. refering to B5 as a mystery constantly). That's all on display here...with the added twist that now, rather than just wrongly characterizing the analysis of events, they, in a few very carefully selected moments within the news footage, actually tampered with the evidence with some clever editing.

But the editing is in no way fact it's so subtle that even viewers who saw the first half of this episode might miss it if they're not watching carefully. For example, taking Sheridan's answers to questions about his romantic involvement with Delenn and making them seem to be answers to unasked questions about Earth's opposition to B5's policies, or splicing a few responses together out of order to paint a picture other than the truth. Notice how ISN preserves it's image of "business as usual" reporting by placing the story from B5 after today's (propagandist) headlines, by throwing in silly trivia segments, and by treating the B5 story as though it were a part of a larger pattern of events including other headlines. In fact, those other headlines were carefully selected and expressed in such a way as to set the mood...which is remarkable.

A work acquaintance of mine has lately fallen prey to similar propaganda tactics...unfortunately deployed by her own mother. She's been filled with self-righteous outrage over the fact that a small number of Americans make more combined than the bottom half of wage earners. The failed logic being fed to her goes "money should be paid to each person according to how hard they work and how important their work is to society." She asks whether a professional athlete really works 10,000 times as hard as she does in a year. That's not how economics work (or even how they SHOULD work), but to her, that's enough logic on which to base an entire economic policy structure and she's getting all of this from her mother, who is doubtlessly getting all of it from progressive propagandists. Don't kid yourselves, those of you reading this little blog of ours. Although the ISN footage is an extreme example of media subversion, the selective culling of information to tell a story with the desired impact on public opinion is very much alive today on both sides of the political spectrum.

Writing: 8.5 / 9.0

Stephanie S.: As I noted above, I think ISN's propagandizing is a bit too obvious this time around. However, the script still does a nice job advancing the fourth-year story.

Acting: 8.5 / 8.0

Stephanie S.: I didn't really see the specific flaws my co-author notes below. I thought the performances were pretty strong (though not quite feature-worthy).

SABR Matt: I did feel like there were a few moments during the interview process where Boxleitner, Furlan, and Biggs hit certain specific lines WAY too hard to be believable in normal conversation so that the edited footage would look sinister. It would have been better if they'd come up with a good reason to have a big enough emotional response to be seen out of context as something sinister. As usual, the acting hurts this episode considerably, though there are good moments (such as Boxleitner's takes after the ISN broadcast).

Message: 10.0 / 10.0

Showing us, the viewers, how easy it can be to subvert the truth and influence us is among the greatest things JMS ever accomplished.


RANDALL: She threatened to grab me by the collar and throw me out an airlock if I didn't turn over a full manifest of our equipment!
IVANOVA: Any unauthorized shipments are a threat to station security. We had to.
SHERIDAN: Commander -- did you threaten to grab this man by the collar and throw him out an airlock?
IVANOVA: Yes, I did.
SHERIDAN: I'm shocked. Shocked and dismayed. I'd remind you that we're short on supplies here. We can't afford to take perfectly good clothing and throw it out into space. Always take the jacket off first. I told you that before. (to Randall) Sorry, she meant to say, 'Stripped naked and thrown out an airlock.' I apologize for any confusion this may have caused. (LOL! As I said, JMS does not like reporters.)

SHERIDAN: Mr. Randall -- everyone knows that ISN is a propaganda arm for President Clark. You didn't come here to do an objective story.
RANDALL: There's no such thing. The objective journalist is one of those great myths you read about, like a gryffin or a phoenix or an honest politician. Everyone's got an agenda whether they admit it or not. But you try not to let it get in the way of the truth. (Oddly enough, I agree with Randall -- to a point. Each journalist has a worldview, and that worldview does tend to influence what he or she writes. At the same time, we writers still have a duty to be honest. The fact that "everyone has an agenda" does not give us carte blanche to consciously twist the facts. /speechifying.)

Then, after this point, I think the episode really needs to be seen to be appreciated.

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