In a book chapter I wrote several years ago, I argued that protest music filled a gap in news coverage during the Vietnam War era because the songs provided Americans with news that the mainstream media was not reporting.
For example, during the early stages of the war, it was U.S. policy to deny that American military personnel were engaged in active combat in Vietnam, and most media followed that storyline. But Phil Ochs suggested -- in the lyrics of his “Talking Vietnam Blues” -- that American military involvement was being described as a “training mission” in order to avoid embarrassment should the U.S. lose the war.
In 1969, Seymour Hersh broke the story of the My Lai massacre in which hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians were killed by U.S. soldiers. However, Americans already knew about civilian casualties from Arlo Guthrie, who had addressed the issue two years earlier in an 18-minute musical narrative called “Alice’s Restaurant.”
Fast forward to 2017, and something similar is occurring. This time it is not just music that is filling the gap. Many parts of the entertainment world are delivering messages more effectively than the news media.
First it was the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” which had a surprise for then-Vice President Elect Mike Pence when he attended the show during the transition period. While the cast gathered onstage following the end of the musical, Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor who played Vice President Aaron Burr, told Pence:
“We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”
Then actress Meryl Streep used the Golden Globes to criticize Donald Trump and speak up for freedom of the press.
"We need the principled press to hold power to account, to call him on the carpet for every outrage,” Streep said after accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award for outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment. “That’s why our founders enshrined the press and its freedoms in the Constitution.”
Television got into the act when ABC’s “Black-ish” devoted a post-election episode to the dilemma of living in a divided country.
“At the end of the day, no one wants to be on the losing side of an upset,” Anthony Anderson’s Dre Johnson character said at the start of the episode. “But what happens when the winners and the losers are supposed to be on the same team?"
During Sunday's Screen Actors Guild awards ceremony, several entertainers used their time at the podium to talk politics -- an activity that was strongly defended by Kerry Washington, the star of ABC's "Scandal."
“A lot of people are saying right now that actors shouldn’t express their opinions when it comes to politics," she told the audience, "but the truth is actors are activists no matter what, because we embody the worth and humanity of all people."
Later in the week at a concert in Melbourne, Australia, Bruce Springsteen unearthed the 1962 pop hit "Don't Hang Up" to send a message about the abrupt ending of the president's telephone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
While actions by today’s entertainers bring back memories of the role of protest music played in the 1960s, there are two significant differences.
Number one: The entertainment world is saying things that an objective media cannot. The messages are important, but they also are opinionated.
Secondly, protest music filled a gap that had been created because mainstream media was not doing its job. That is not the case today. The problem today is that the media has been vilified to the point where the public has lost its confidence in news organizations. According to a September 2016 Gallup poll, “Americans' trust and confidence in the mass media ‘to report the news fully, accurately and fairly’ has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with 32 percent saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media.”
Journalists are unlikely to be intimidated by the numbers. They should – and will – continue to do their jobs and hold those in power accountable, but in today’s anti-media environment, they can benefit from the help of folks who are much more popular – those in the world of entertainment.