Media Matters: Symptoms of a lost sense of reality

'Tonight Show' host Lior Shlein gave viewers a fright this week by mocking the swine-flu scare.

lior shlein 248.88 (photo credit: Channel 10)
lior shlein 248.88
(photo credit: Channel 10)
Lior Shlein has done it again, though this time one wonders whether it's the media who've gone too far, or the public that's lost its mind - and sense of humor. There's no accounting for taste, so those who don't find Shlein's The Tonight Show especially entertaining in general, or who didn't consider Tuesday's mini-fiasco funny in particular, can be excused for shaking their heads in dismay. On the other hand, as one Hebrew blogger pointed out: "Whoever watches that program deserves what he gets." Well, those who were watching in February, when Shlein poked puerile and petulant fun at Jesus, didn't think that they - or the millions of offended Christians the world over who were treated to the satire on YouTube - deserved what they got. Still, Shlein was sufficiently remorseful. Following the barrage of criticism he sustained for that little piece of bad taste and worse judgment, he apologized profusely, insisting he had meant no harm. Luckily for the comedian-turned-talk-show-host - a la Jay Leno - his most recent faux pas was not as egregious. This is because the sour chord it struck did not have to do with religious heresy, but rather with swine-flu phobia. In other words, at least it wasn't a slight aimed at a particular group. Instead, it was a comedic commentary on the recent outbreak of health hysteria, brought on by repeated reports in the press of WHO warnings in relation to the virus and raised alert levels. THIS IS by no means the first time that fiction - disguised as news - unwittingly aroused high anxiety. In October 1938, Orson Wells presented an adaptation of H.G. Wells's novel, The War of the Worlds, on his hugely popular radio program, listened to avidly by millions. Applying what, at the time, was an unconventional technique to his art, Orson decided to have H. G.'s book - about Martians invading Earth - performed in the style of a news broadcast. Actors playing reporters and officials "interrupted" the program to provide "live updates" of a hostile force landing in the United States from outer space. Though the material in question was science fiction, the response on the part of listeners was not. In droves, panic-stricken Americans grabbed their guns, took to their cars or their cellars, some with their heads wrapped in wet towels, to protect themselves from the alien gas allegedly being used to destroy the planet. This mishap - that no one in his right mind could have anticipated - occurred because the announcement that the rendition of the book was fictional came only once at the beginning of the program, and again 40 minutes later. And the performance was apparently so credible that many among those who didn't happen to catch the disclaimers actually believed that an extraterrestrial enemy was out to get them. MUCH HAS been written about this incident, perhaps the first and most blatant example of how the media are capable of manipulating the mind-set of their audience - even when not attempting to do so. At the time, op-ed writers and cartoonists went wild. Since then, films have been made as well. Now, I wasn't around 70 years ago to experience the phenomenon firsthand. And far be it from me to judge whether Orson Wells should have taken a bit more care with the power that the microphone awards he who is controlling it at a given moment, or whether people might be expected to exercise a few more of their brain cells before jumping to implausible conclusions. I am, however, alive today. And I have to say that, whichever way you view them, the phony bulletins on Shlein's show this week, presented by Natali Barda and Niv Gilboa (which led to dozens of complaints lodged against Shlein and Channel 10, and appeals to the ombudsman of the Second Authority for Television and Radio) could only be misconstrued as factual by someone not paying attention. Though it is true that each of the above actors "broke into the broadcast" in a realistic fashion (with the official Channel 10 "special bulletin" logo as their backdrop), what they said was utterly ridiculous, if not hilarious. Barda, who provided the supposed scoop, reported on the outbreak of a deadly disease in Seoul - as well as a few cases in Israel - called "old age," an illness for which there is no cure. The symptoms: wrinkles appearing where they weren't before, grey hair and a kalnoit (the bike-like vehicle commonly used by senior citizens) parked outside one's house. Gilboa, who "interrupted" Shlein some minutes later, provided additional information on the symptoms of the fatal condition of aging - speaking Yiddish inadvertently. I rest my case. This is not to say that I never agree with the public about carelessness on the part of the media or others when it comes to making practical jokes under precarious circumstances. On the contrary. Take wartime, for example. When the sound of sirens is a serious call to take cover - either in sealed rooms, as was the case in the first Gulf War, or in bomb shelters, as has been the plight of residents of the South for the past eight years, even more so during Operation Cast Lead, and that of residents of the North during the Second Lebanon War - even real newscasts on TV and the radio should take special precautions to muffle the frightening noise of the sirens when reporting on red alerts that have already passed. But, just as we in the media have to take the public's sensibilities and mood into account, the public is not totally exempt from responsibility. Hot news flash: It is the public, after all, which has voted with its feet by giving the genres of satire and reality TV the highest of all ratings. Shlein and his crew - as Wells and his - were merely catering to the cultural climate.