Real TV and Cinema Verite
by Andrew Hultkrans

"What you are about to see is real. There are no re-enactments."
—"LAPD: Life on the Beat"
    "Truth Wins"
—Dole campaign banner

Towards the end of the 1996 presidential campaign, a flagging Bob Dole sought to spin himself as the candidate of "truth" by condemning Bill Clinton as a slick dissimulator pathologically incapable of "telling the truth," whatever that meant. The galling spectacle of Dole — an utterly compromised career politician — desperately clutching the banner of honesty as if it was one of his omnipresent pencils, reflected the deep cynicism that has infected American politics, from the candidates on down to Joe Bongload, non-voter. This widespread cynicism, far from being confined to the cesspool of politics, colors the transmission of all media-generated images, facts, and news reports — calling their authenticity into question — and thereby creating an unusual demand for an aesthetics of the "the real." This hunger for "the real" has manifested itself in an ever-expanding genre of "Reality TV," from "Cops" to the absurdly oxymoronic "Real TV," and the resurgence of the "truth-seeking" art house documentary, exemplified by THE THIN BLUE LINE, ROGER AND ME, and MY BROTHER'S KEEPER. On MTV, hardcore rappers bust rhetorical moves worthy of French theorist Jean Baudrillard in their desperate efforts to represent "the real" through their simulated, studio gangsta fantasies. And in Planet Hollywood, crusading baby-boomer filmmakers attempt to unearth the secret history of their generation in overblown, agenda-heavy epics that blur the boundaries between fact and fiction while purporting to deliver "the real story" behind official accounts (JFK, MALCOM X, PANTHER, NIXON).


The quaint and naive Dole slogan "Truth Wins" reveals more than its morally bankrupt creators intended. While harkening back to an irretrievable Norman Rockwell era when "honesty" and "values" meant something, the slogan unwittingly points to the use of "truth" as a narrative strategy, an aesthetic spin among many, to be deployed knowingly as a means of producing a desired audience response. Like the video verité camerawork employed in the re-enactments of "Real Stories of the Highway Patrol" and "America's Most Wanted", "truth" has become a carefully scripted style, an aesthetic of simulation masking the fundamental absence of truth in our spectacular society. The self-conscious use of truth as a narrative hook was pioneered on TV by Jack Webb's unintentionally campy "Dragnet", which promised in stentorian tones that "The story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent." That Jack Webb was not actually Sergeant Joe Friday of the Los Angeles Police Department, and that the entire story was a dramatic re-enactment went unmenthoned, but this was irrelevant. Webb delivered an unparalleled simulation of authenticity in his deadpan "just the facts, ma'am" acting style, foreshadowing Dole's equally wooden campaign appearances.