in Profiles | 09 SEP 98
Featured in
Issue 42

We Are Not Alone

Rejecting the media's moralising response to The Truman Show

in Profiles | 09 SEP 98

Poking around on the Internet, you might come across the home page of the Truman Liberation Front ( The members of this underground group exchange information and proclaim loyalty to their singular and single-minded cause: to free Truman Burbank from his lifelong captivity by the OmniCam corporation and to infiltrate and disrupt the television show that has broadcast his life for the past 30 years. There is a schedule of meetings and rallies, a message board for earnest, awkwardly-phrased calls to action.

The site isn't real, of course. Or rather, it is real - really 'there' on the web; it's the cause that's made up. Truman Burbank is a fictional character. The Front is, presumably, a front for Paramount Pictures, distributor of Peter Weir's film The Truman Show, and the site exists to create a buzz and to sell 'Free Truman' caps and T-shirts. It's a deadpan promotional stunt, an advertisement floating in cyberspace, unacknowledged as such.

The cleverness of this campaign comes in part from its appropriateness. Weir's film revels in twisty Chinese-box complications of real/invented duality, drawing on sources from The Tempest to Pinocchio to The Twilight Zone. The 'Free Truman' website taps into a certain science-fiction nerd pleasure in imagining the film's world as contiguous with our own. It is a trompe l'oeil scandal, dead-on in its mimicry of the language of indignation.

Indeed, much of the glowing commentary the film has received in the US purveyed a sense of millennial zeitgeist. Reviewers use the word 'we' a lot, and they seem to be talking about a group larger than just the audience. The film 'speaks' - in a singular voice - to some hypostasised 'us'. Anthony Lane in The New Yorker cited The Truman Show's 'gloomy warning that television will overrun our lives and our minds'. In The New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann referred to 'its grim reminder of our media slavery'. If you didn't know better, you might think these guys actually believe the movie is real.

The movie is real, of course. It exists in the world like any cultural artefact. And, like any good satire, it is about the real world. The Truman Show is particularly sophisticated in its choice of resonances, tapping into the growing wave of 'reality' television - daytime talk shows and documentary adventures, celebrity trials unfolding in soap opera instalments. The movie, however, is a victim of its own success. In becoming an occasion for commentary, the film becomes an event rather than an object. Migrating from the arts section to the op-ed page, it turns into news. As news, though, it's kind of stale. This just in: the media is really, really powerful, and doesn't always tell the truth. Much of this sort of commentary is disingenuous, too. Does Stanley Kauffmann really believe he is a slave? Do the literate readers of The New Republic honestly see themselves as powerless before the monolith of the media? The huffing and puffing around the 'issues' raised by Weir's movie can seem as artificial as the zeal of the Truman Liberation Front.

My own choice for poster boy of this media deception zeitgeist is not Truman Burbank, but Ian Restil, a 15 year-old computer hacker. From his parents' home, Restil hacked into the system of the small California software company Jukt Micronics, where he published all the executives' salaries and posted pornographic images. The people at Jukt, either impressed or frightened, offered Restil an $81,000 scholarship and a bunch of valuable old comic books.

Restil isn't real, of course. As you might have heard, he is the creation of disgraced journalist Stephen Glass, who was recently fired from The New Republic for passing off fiction as reportage. Jukt Micronics is also an invention; to throw editors off the track, Glass created a phoney website for the company. His other inventions are equally loopy: The Bush-worshipping First Church of George Herbert Walker Christ; the novelty manufacturers offering more than 3,000 Monica Lewinsky-related items, including 'Monicondoms' and an inflatable 'Leaves of Grass'-reciting sex doll with 'intern' stencilled across its chest; and The Union of Concerned Santas and Easter Bunnies, a support group founded by one Richard Claus. Dozens of these absurdist creations made it into print, accepted unquestioningly by editors and readers; everyone seemed outlandishly surprised to learn that the colourful characters that populated Glass' stories were, in fact, characters. Now, I'm as big a believer in journalistic integrity as the next guy, and yes, I think what Glass did was wrong. But something about the playfulness, the giddy excess of his deception sticks with me.

At the time of writing, Glass has yet to make a statement. Speculation about his motives seem limited to 'ambitious young writer over-extends himself and has no time to do real reportage' and simple pathology. Neither of these seem particularly convincing. What would it mean, I wonder, to view Glass' fraudulent journalism as something more consciously crafted - a game, a conceptual art project, a Truman-style critique of the media? That he permanently sabotaged his career seems to argue against this, but it also demonstrates how much is at stake when one really plays with the media. This may be your standard media-induced paranoia talking, I know, but has anyone else noticed that 'Ian Restil' is an anagram for 'I isn't real'?