Slippery Scribes Shaft Striking Screenwriters

Well, that didn't take long. No sooner did the writers grab their picket signs and head for Rockefeller Center than the New York Times belittled and mocked them, paragraph after paragraph. A bit painful, isn't it, this writerly write-down of writers?

In the first paragraph of its initial story, Times writers, who are not on strike, managed to include the pejorative "so-called" as a modifier of "new media." In the third paragraph the Times notes that the picketers were at times drowned out by fans of the Today Show across the street. The fourth paragraph speaks of the writers including the "trappings" of a real union strike. The fifth paragraph notes the striking screenwriters wore "arty glasses and fancy scarves."

In the sixth paragraph, striking children's show writer Sarah Durken says, "A lot of people probably feel like we are brats." I'm sure a journalist's question provoked that unfortunate frame. Then the Times writers made sure to include it high in the story.

Did you hear about the Hollywood starlet so naive she slept with the writer? The truth is, the big money of the entertainment industry disguises an ugly truth in America: creativity is often regarded with suspicion and parsimonious neglect. The suits regard the truly creative type as a necessary freak, like a bearded lady in a carnival sideshow. You can't have a show without her, but don't split the take with her.

Why is this? One reason is that business-oriented minds don't spend much time reading Emily Dickinson or William Faulkner. Where's the practicality in that? People who are sensitive and imaginative are mysteries to them. This alienation is exacerbated by the fact that the creatives, typically motivated by values other than greed and power, don't have the right buttons to push. You would think that an aggressive business type would be relieved to be in the presence of someone who doesn't want his job. Instead, the creative type fills him with dread. "How can I manipulate the writer if he doesn't care about money and power?" he asks himself.

Anyone who's worked as a writer at a big ad agency or other bottom-line oriented enterprise has felt this awkward emotional distancing.

Which brings us back to the New York Times. Entertainment writers carrying picket signs in the streets of New York present a unique challenge to the self-image of journalists who feel themselves above the frivolous business of entertainment (until they get a story with enough melodrama to start a bidding war for the film rights). Civilizations, not ratings, rise and fall on the work of journalists. Circulation, of course, is irrelevant to the true journalist. They don't have opening weekend numbers.

Despite the characterization by the Times, the screenwriters challenge to the status quo is just as important as a miner's strike or auto-workers walk-out. There's something about the soul of America at stake here. We shouldn't forget that in Czechoslovakia, it was the creative cultural challenge to the Czech totalitarian regime by a group of entertainers, The Plastic People of the Universe , and their subsequent arrest and trial, that led to the famous Charter 77 protest in 1977 and, ultimately, the fall of the regime in 1989 and the democratic presidency of, gasp, a playwright, Vaclav Havel. Tom Stoppard's new play, Rock & Roll, is about this. It received a wonderful review in the Times.

Okay, I'm not saying we oughta elect a screenwriter president. But, then, why is it we can make governors and presidents of actors who speak their words while dismissing the authors of the scripts that made them famous?

It's time America got over its antipathy toward the sources of the nation's creative power. Our poets die in obscurity, copywriters eat lunch alone, and screenwriters go unslept with. And all the while, the suits pretend they have accomplished something creatively themselves. No one in a suit ever drove a railroad spike, and not one will be published in a volume of the Library of America.

Let's drink to the hard-working writers. Spare a thought for the rag-taggy people. Glasses, scarves, and all.

Glenn W. Smith is a Rockridge Institute Senior Fellow. He is the author of The Politics of Deceit: Saving Freedom and Democracy from Extinction

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