Recently I watched Oprah Winfrey lose it with Lindsay Lohan on TV.
Lohan, petulant, said, “My struggle was that I signed up for something, for just a camera to be there, not a reality show. No offence to the Kardashians, they do a great job with theirs, but I don’t ever want to be that.”
The matter in question was Lindsay, the reality or documentary series (call it whatever you want) for Winfrey’s OWN channel that chronicles Lohan’s attempt to stay sober, drug-free and do her work as an actress. The series (which airs Sundays on OWN, 10 p.m.) had shown Lohan to be tardy, truculent and difficult with the crew filming her life.
Winfrey told her: “You need to cut the bulls**t, you really do. You are going to have to prove the naysayers wrong. The vultures are waiting to pick your bones. And that shouldn’t frighten you, that should liberate you because if I were you I wouldn’t let them have me.”
It was tense. Oprah never swears.
On Friday, I watched, online, Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s interview with CBC Radio’s Matt Galloway. Galloway challenged Ford – who’s running for re-election – about his claims to have saved Toronto a billion dollars; about employment figures and, in a rare instance of candid conversation with Ford, asked him about his drug use and drinking. Ford dodged and weaved, as if what Galloway was talking about were rumours and embellishments.
These two media events are connected. What connects them is not just the fact that the two celebrity figures are best known as train wrecks. There’s their denial and narcissism, too. And there’s the fact that reality has gone askew. The two events illustrate how traditional, firm narratives reported and spread by traditional news media have been shattered.
Lohan can feel free to moan about the attention given to her even when it’s something she agreed to do. The series about her isn’t truly about her demons, her struggles and her pain. It’s one long selfie. Ford can dodge and weave around questions and make outrageous claims because he knows a portion of the electorate is only dipping in and out of the news narrative. He knows, intuitively or consciously, that in the chaos of the Internet age, a lot of people don’t know or care what’s real or what’s merely sensational half-truths or biased opinion.
Both Winfrey and Galloway make assumptions based on old-media attitudes about certainty and verisimilitude. The thing is, the very idea of knowing the truth is now elastic. While we think that the digital age has moved us forward in terms of communication, it has, in fact, driven us back to something closer to medieval culture.
This isn’t an insight or speculation exclusive to me. In his book The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself, British historian Andrew Pettegree makes the point that what we see as old media, in terms of reporting and reliability, is relatively new in human history and, further, is a rather fragile concept.
Reviewing the book in The New Statesman magazine, veteran newspaper editor Peter Wilby wrote, “In the medieval world, news was usually exchanged amid the babble of the marketplace or the tavern, where truth competed with rumour, mishearing and misunderstanding. In some respects, it is to that world that we seem to be returning.”
That remark was on my mind watching both Lohan and Ford being interviewed. It’s not just that Rob Ford’s campaign to be re-elected is one long selfie, like Lohan’s TV show. It’s that such figures, both of them petulant, narcissistic and in denial, thrive in that medieval-type world of babble, of “rumour, mishearing and misunderstanding.” Evading the truth is easier when the public is comfortable with the cacophony of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and blogging. The very principle of there existing a “true story” or a fixed narrative is gone.
They’re an interesting and thematically connected pair, Lohan and Ford. In one of the episodes of Lindsay, the actress says of her tendency to self-destruction, “There’s this thing in my head that goes, ‘Oh, it’s time to sabotage.’” Anyone who has watched the Ford saga unfold knows that he appears to have the same “thing” in his head. Both are deeply engaged with being famous and both don’t seem to mind if the fame arises from appalling behaviour.
The important point, though, is how the public perceive both. Lohan’s career is now that of a professional screw-up. Ford’s is that of a buffoon. Lohan’s acting career continues, in fits and starts, after six rehab stays, two DUIs, six arrests, seven car accidents and 14 days in jail. Such is the confusion of impressions of her that there is no longer a reliable narrative. Oprah Winfrey wants her to acknowledge her mistakes and recover. Lohan knows there’s been such a mess in her life that only the mess matters. She knows that nobody much cares about the narrative that Winfrey wants for her.
Ford knows he can make outlandish claims about his achievements and avoid acknowledging his behaviour because the idea of accuracy in his story is redundant. Accuracy in general is fading.
People used to blame television for the dumbing down of news coverage. That was overstated. It’s the digital age that’s undermined everything. We are like medieval peasants in our personal newsgathering. And Lindsay Lohan and Rob Ford are part of the proof.