Oscar-winner Dreyfuss campaigns against "shaped news"


By Astrid Zweynert

LONDON (Reuters) - Richard Dreyfuss has challenged the establishment for decades and now the maverick actor and activist is taking on the mainstream media.

The Oscar-winning star says an obsession with delivering instantaneous news and images provides too little context for audiences to reflect and understand what is happening in the world.

"There is no room to pause, no room to think," Dreyfuss, who starred in films ranging from "Jaws" to "Mr Holland's Opus" told Reuters in a recent telephone interview.

"We don't build into our system of thoughts the need to explain, the media doesn't build that into its transmission of knowledge and information."

That creates what Dreyfuss calls "shaped news" -- a version of events according to how the mainstream media want audiences to see what happened, and a violation of journalism's core value of objectivity.

Citizen journalism is playing a vital part in broadening news coverage, as well as scrutinizing professional journalism, Dreyfuss said.

"Information from more than one source is good. I'm totally in favor of it, even if people send propaganda. In the aggregate you can find more truth than in one opinion."

But despite an explosion in blogs, people's views of the news is still shaped by what powerful media corporations print, broadcast and put on their Web sites, Dreyfuss, 58, said.

"Do the mainstream media ever tell their readers 'Don't believe everything we tell you?' No, they don't."

Dreyfuss said media coverage of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York was a pertinent example of how a non-stop supply of images and spot news shaped people's views.

"The falling Twin Towers -- pictures that produced anger, a lot of anger that were sent instantly around the world, they created a need to react."

"People in Kansas could see the Twin Towers fall at exactly the same instant as in Nigeria and Cairo. Such an instantaneous knowledge of a situation leads to an instantaneous reaction which creates demand for an instantaneous, reflexive response.

"The question is how do you get people to find out more, how do you get people to read not just what they are told to read."

The power of language is also an important factor in shaping the news.

"The 'war on terror' -- objection to using this term is dead. It's become part of our vocabulary, but what does it really mean? You should know more specifically what you are fighting."

Dreyfuss is eager to point out that he is not anti-technology: "I'm not in love with technology and speed but I don't want to sound like a luddite.

"We've got to be aware of the power of technology and the speed at which it allows us to transmit information.

"You have to encourage prose, analysis and detail -- otherwise people will go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan without really knowing why."

Dreyfuss, who won an Oscar for his performance in "The Goodbye Girl," has pursued his passion for political and social activism since his college days.

An active opponent of the Vietnam War, he has also worked to promote solutions to the Mideast conflict, campaigned for education and, most recently, has lent his support to a campaign for the impeachment of President Bush.

He is studying civics and democracy as a senior associate member at St Antony's College at the University of Oxford.

"Civics is no longer taught in the U.S, a sign of a neurosis that is inexplicable," he said. "Not to teach civics is suicide.

"Reason, logic, civility, dissent and debate -- five ancient words that should be taught again and better, at elementary level, so that people know the difference between news and shaped news," Dreyfuss said.