Hacking, phishing and the National Security Agency revelations have led many to wonder: Who is watching us? But two new movies with simultaneous, serendipitous Friday premieres, invert the question. Who, or what, are Americans paying attention to?

The more celebrated film, “The Bling Ring,” is about celebrity obsession. The bling refers to the clothes, shoes, jewelry and cash of Hollywood’s A-list. The ring — privileged teen thieves living around Los Angeles — is motivated by celebrity obsession as much as by materialism.

Sure, the goods the gang steals are expensive. But the real value seems to be stealing a moment, or memento, from famous lives like Orlando Bloom, Megan Fox, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Audrina Patridge and other real and reality-TV stars targeted by the burglars.

“The Bling Ring,” based on real events, shows that the thieves weren’t poor. But they were on the outside looking in. (At least until they got in — and got away with goods perceived to have high value in part because they were owned by the rich and famous.)

Celebrity obsession is nothing new. But like so much in today’s technologically transformed, modern-media era, its impact is amplified by niche networks, programs and websites dedicated to celebrity watching, as well as by soaring social-media use.

This media saturation sometimes results in stories morphing into postmodernism. For example, once caught, the real-life bling ring was chronicled by E!, TMZ, and other celebrity-watching websites, networks and programs. In fact, the thieves achieved their own degree of fame (or infamy) for their crime spree. Sure, they ruined their futures. But to some, that brief paparazzi present seemed to be a gift.

Some involved in the film are intimately familiar with fame, which makes “The Bling Ring” even more intriguing. Director Sofia Coppola grew up in a famous family, sometimes surrounded by Academy Award-winning talent directed by her famous father, Francis Ford Coppola, in monumental movies like “The Godfather.” And “The Bling Ring’s” most notable star, Emma Watson — who inverts her image of “Harry Potter’s” whip-smart heroine Hermione Granger into a vacuous Valley Girl — would have been the type of star targeted by the ring had she had a Hollywood house. Most remarkably, Paris Hilton, famous for being famous, makes a cameo, and even allowed Coppola to film in her home (which to audiences appears like exhibit A of A-list excess that seems to sum up this era).

Meanwhile, “Dirty Wars” is the antithesis of the themes explored in “The Bling Ring.” Part documentary, part personal journalistic journey by Jeremy Scahill, an investigative foreign correspondent for the Nation magazine, “Dirty Wars” is about the metastasizing military response to the “war on terror.” In an emotional first-person narrative, Scahill argues that President Obama’s antiterrorism tactics, including drone strikes and special-forces nighttime raids, represent a counterproductive, shady strategy.

But “Dirty Wars” is also about Scahill’s quixotic quest to get Americans to notice national policies that affect the world.

“As an investigative reporter, you rarely have people’s attention,” Scahill says in the film. “More often than not you work alone. And the stories you labor over fall on deaf ears.”

Scahill concludes “Dirty Wars” by saying: “Somehow, in front of our eyes, undeclared wars have been launched in countries across the globe, foreigners and citizens alike assassinated by presidential decree. The ‘war on terror’ transformed into a self-fulfilling prophesy. How does a war like this ever end? And what happens to us when we finally see what’s hidden in plain sight?”

Scahill’s question, let alone his documentary, is bound to be controversial. But this much isn’t: Regardless of interpretation, it’s unlikely that Americans are seeing “what’s hidden in plain sight,” or even what’s not hidden. Coverage is scant, at least compared with the war’s early years. And interest is low, too, according to new Pew research released Monday. That study tracked the top 10 Washington news stories respondents said they were following “very closely.” Neither Afghanistan, nor the broader war on terror that the film focuses on, are on the list.

Scahill has tried to instill interest on the most natural, national news venues — broadcast and cable news programs. But he accuses them of choosing entertainment over enlightenment. “I quickly discovered that the world of talk-show television is less a meeting place for ideas, and more like a boxing ring,” Scahill says in “Dirty Wars.”

Well, maybe not all of them. But the best, PBS’s “NewsHour,” is having its own challenges competing against news networks whose anchors are sometimes celebrities in their own right. Just last week PBS announced “NewsHour” would close two bureaus and cut 10 employees.

The public seems to sense the skewed coverage toward celebrities and away from hard news. For example, Pew data dated from around the time the bling ring was chronicled in a celebrated 2010 Vanity Fair article on which Coppola based her movie stated that 71 percent of Americans thought there was “too much” coverage of Lindsay Lohan’s jail sentencing, compared with only 6 percent who said the same about the situation in Afghanistan.

In some sense, there’s a different kind of bling ring afoot. Only it’s not a criminal enterprise, but a broader cultural phenomenon. And this bling isn’t celebrities’ clothes, but celebrity coverage itself, which has increased along with our media options.

Available time, however, never increases. Which can mean that sometimes what is stolen is truly invaluable: Interest and introspection about vital national issues.


John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 7:50 a.m. weekdays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.