New Orleans An interesting conversation with University of Houston professor, author, and poet, Roberto Tejada, on Wade’s World, about his new book, Still Nowhere in an Empty Vastness, got me thinking a lot about the fact that the manipulation of media of all kinds is anything but new. What triggered our speculation was not the constant barrage of Trump-time, but Pancho Villa, the Mexican revolutionary, and Cabeza de Vaca, the woebegone and hapless explorer of sorts of much of the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas.
Tejada made the often-forgotten observation in one of his essays that the Mexican Revolution in 1910 was the first area of combat in history that was widely photographed for print and filmed for cinema newscasts. It was big news for a new media. As Trump has also reminded us, access was all important. Francisco “Pancho” Villa amazingly signed an agreement with a film company. Tejada includes a section of the agreement where Villa essentially offered the filmmakers exclusive access to his battlefields. Amazingly, one of the provisos in the agreement encumbered Villa to reenact battles, if the live footage was inadequate or unavailable. This is stunning to me. Are you with me? This is a general in the middle of a revolution with his rebel armies both agreeing and then actually going into the field with their soldiers playacting the previous battle scenes. Unbelievable!
Tejada and I discussed whether this was “fake news” or not. He argued that it wasn’t really fake, because it had happened, but since the footage would be presented as if real, to me at least it was artificial news. I would like to say it would have been beneath modern standards, but all of us have read of TV reporters “manufacturing” settings, scenes, and interviews to give impressions that were equally fabricated.
How incredibly shrewd – and contemporary – was Villa to understand how he could easily manipulate the media? Taking it one step farther, Villa also agreed and starred in a movie about his own life in order to gain support for his cause by going 100% Hollywood. For a time, it even worked, changing the global impression of the Revolution and Villa as one of the leaders in attempting to overthrow the government of Porfirio Diaz.
Tejada writes in the title essay, De Vaca’s contribution hundreds of years earlier after having sailed to Florida and later been captured for years, losing almost all of his men in his wanderings, before he escaped, was also something Trump-like folks would have understood. He wrote of his journeys in a politician’s exercise of spin and rehabilitation. He likely invented a tale of being treated better as a captive because of a wham-bang piece of field surgery he performed in removing an arrowhead that few imagined possible. Anticipating future charges of genocide, he even offers some defense for his native American capturers and their situation despite his captivity.
These are all good reminders that all reading, listening, and viewing of media has required a good dose of salt and skepticism forever and always, not just today.