Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Betancourt Blockbuster

Thanks to the LA Times for reminding us of the difference between traditional print media and the Internet...

...after all, you can't wipe your ass with a blog.

That was my first thought as I opened my Sunday LAT and discovered that a piece of entertainment writing had escaped its natural habitat in the Calendar section and was instead lurking on page A4 of what was once known as the news section.

There, Betancourt's tale captivates, an article by Patrick McDonnell and Chris Kraul informs us, “The saga of [Ingrid Betancourt]...is generating major media interest in the United States...Hollywood sees box office potential in Betancourt's ordeal...”

...Betancourt's tale “has it all,” said Jim McNamara, chairman of Miami-based Panamax films...”Her captors are ugly, ugly villains out of central casting...”

Betancourt is represented by CAA and her “first decision will be whether to agree to co-operate on a “cheap TV movie that's out in two months” or do a comprehensive book and film deal...”She's holding all the cards”.

With my usual corrosive cynicism, I wonder if the photoplay will include dramatic scenes of FARC fattening Betancourt up with food and medical care in anticipation of her negotiated release; the months of talks between European intermediaries and FARC, allegedly culminating in payment of a $20 million ransom; or indications that Colombia's President Uribe hijacked the release helicopters and spun the whole event as a rescue with the help of the United States and a credulous media.

Those buzz-killing angles received considerably less ink in the article than the expert opinion of M*A*S*H scribe Larry Gelbart:

"Once again, life trumps art...[It] seems as though it was ripped from a motion picture screen and rushed with all haste to the 11 o'clock news...Such creative planning led to the best of all possible movie finishes: a happy ending."

But my genuine interest in this article is whether the emergence of this generic piece of Hollywood industry tittle tattle on the news pages represents a desperate effort by the LA Times—newly slimmed down by the severance of 150 staff members and the mandated reduction of 15% of its not inconsiderable printed bulk—to up the infotainment quotient of its coverage to compete with the Internet and TV for the ever-decreasing attention span of the American audience.

I see the Betancourt story as a sign that the traditional US media—its traditional eminence eroded by a proliferation of alternative outlets, erosion of its revenue base, and the subsequent decline of the journalistic coverage and quality that once gave it its distinction and competitive advantage—realizes that promotional partners are needed to give its generic product added prominence.

For US media outlets, the biggest promotional partner is, of course, the US government.

If the US government is willing to give a story legs by providing talking points, talking heads, details, leaks, embed facilities, video feed, statements from the Rose Garden and whatever it takes give the story forward momentum, then that's a story that the LA Times should devote its resources to covering...and keep alive by cross-promoting...while more difficult stories (and angles) wither on the vine.

Of course, it doesn't hurt to have attractive characters in a compelling setting.

In Hollywood terms, I would say the Betancourt story is the tentpole release by the big studio (the US) with the fast food tie-in (War on Terror!) and the charismatic star eager to push the picture on TV, Internet...and in the press.

And the LA Times, instead of reporting the story, is just pathetically happy to be part of it.

And, in trying to beat the blogs, it is becoming just as bad as them.

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That correspondence and a response written to her by her adult children were published this spring in a book, “Letters to My Mother: A Message of Love, A Plea for Freedom.” The publisher, Abrams Image, is reprinting the book and rushing it to market.

Meanwhile, Ecco will issue a paperback edition in October of “Until Death Do Us Part: My Struggle to Reclaim Colombia,” Betancourt’s blistering 2001 critique of national corruption. The publisher, which is an imprint of HarperCollins, plans an updated subtitle: “A Memoir by the Politician Recently Rescued from Colombian Rebels After Six Years in Captivity.”

The Paris daily Le Monde wrote of “generalized stupefaction” over Betancourt’s poise. She has French nationality via her first husband, father of her two children, Lorenzo, 19, and Melanie, 22. Betancourt lived in France as a child.

Even French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his pop-star wife, Carla Bruni, took a back seat to Betancourt when she arrived in Paris aboard a French government jet.

Venezuelan analyst Moises Naim has christened Betancourt “the Colombian Mandela,” a reference to Nelson Mandela’s emergence from captivity to become South Africa’s president.

Some have named her an early favorite in Colombia’s 2010 presidential elections. Betancourt has been coy about whether she will run.

“You might even have an epilogue,” producer McNamara said, “if she is elected president.”