John Rash: Top two films offer lessons on life and media

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 14, 2011 - 11:01 PM

'Friend' as a noun, verb: 'The King's Speech' and 'The Social Network.'

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Colin Firth, left, and Geoffrey Rush in "The King's Speech"

Photo: The Weinstein Company , Laurie Sparham

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The intersection of media and society is where one finds our modern age. We all help create the collision of these forces, and we are all in turn reshaped by it.

I've spent a lot of time at this intersection, not only in my personal life, but professionally -- previously as director of media analysis at ad agency Campbell Mithun; in teaching mass media, politics and popular culture at the University of Minnesota, and in doing daily WCCO-AM radio segments.

As an editorial writer, I've opined about it, and starting today the Star Tribune has given me the honor of writing a column, the Rash Report, on the subject.

I'm not unique in noticing how the media -- society's storyteller -- is increasingly the story itself.

The Tucson tragedy ignited an important debate about our unhealthy media discourse, from toxic talk radio to anonymous, angry online comments.

Sarah Palin, the embodiment of the politics-media nexus, was riding high with best-selling books, reality TV and Fox News gigs and a formidable Facebook and Twitter following, but she had to "refudiate" (her "word of the year," according to the New Oxford American Dictionary) critics of her use of crosshairs on her online map of targeted congressional candidates.

A country apart geographically and a world apart politically, Michael Bloomberg is both New York's mayor and a media mogul. Meanwhile, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg just edged out WikiLeaks' Julian Assange to become Time's "Person of the Year."

The big screen is also reflecting the unprecedented power of media in our time. Take "The King's Speech" and "The Social Network," the top two films vying for tomorrow night's Golden Globe Award for Best Drama.

"The King's Speech" tells the story of King George VI, afflicted with a stutter just when radio (which the Brits then called "wireless") began to require royal eloquence, not just elegance. He forms an uncommon friendship with an Australian commoner, Lionel Logue, a self-taught speech therapist who tutors the Tudor, whom he calls by his nickname, "Bertie."

Stopping stuttering isn't just an act of self-improvement, but one of self-preservation; King George needs to rally beleaguered Britain against Germany. In a telling scene, after watching a newsreel of Hitler whipping a rally into madness, Elizabeth, the future queen, asks "What's he saying, daddy?" "I don't know," the king responds, "but he seems to be saying it rather well."

Saying things rather well has always been important, but modern media has given rise to a new breed of leader.

"As the media change, the expectation of communication changes, and with it our expectations of those who lead," said University of Pennsylvania Prof. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert in politics and media. "What radio did was introduce the personalization of politics."

The Internet, and in particular social networks, have accelerated the rise of personality over policy. Establishing Facebook and Twitter accounts are electronic hats in the ring, and while posts and tweets are just a stray spark compared with an FDR fireside chat -- they're still enough to inflame any debate.

"The capacity to deliver an extended argument is no longer a requirement of those who lead," said Jamieson.

"The Social Network" is less about saying things well and more about how they are said. It chronicles the fight over who founded Facebook, which has wired (or, for some, obsessively roped in) about a twelfth of the planet.

Ultimately both films are fundamentally about friendship -- about how it's human, not wireless, connections that count. But the two protagonists couldn't approach things more differently.

For the king, it's the remoteness of royalty, even more than his stutter, that keeps him from connecting. That is, until he meets Lionel, who treats him like an equal -- in British slang, more "mate" than majesty. "That's what friends are for," says Lionel when the two share a drink. "I wouldn't know," sighs the king.

Commoner Zuckerberg's verbal affliction -- an acid tongue -- chases away his girlfriend, and Facebook cofounder Eduardo Saverin lashes out at him, saying, "I was your only friend," after Zuckerberg "unfriended" (2009 "word of the year") him out of what is now a $50 billion business. Unlike the king, Zuckerberg, who made "friend" a verb, can't grasp it as a noun.

Both films show how human bonds can be built or broken by the new challenges and opportunities of the new media age. Either way, the results are often consequential, and the Rash Report will be there to comment -- in print and, of course, online.

The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. weekdays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. Follow John Rash at @rashreport on Twitter.

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