09/24/2010 03:49 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Educating for Democracy: Book Burning and "Wagging the Dog"

In the farce that passed for national news several weeks ago, an obscure minister from South Florida managed to get more attention from the media and General Petraeus, Secretary of Defense Gates and President Obama than a slightly more newsworthy story such as a cure for cancer or the sudden appearance of a massive asteroid heading straight for earth. This skillful manipulation of the public hunger for anything that is sensational reminds me of the 1997 movie, Wag the Dog.

With a brilliant, hilarious, and eerily prescient screenplay by David Mamet and stellar performances by Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro the movie revealed the power of a savvy media PR man and an inventive Hollywood producer to manipulate the media into creating a non-existent "War" with Albania in order to distract the public from a Presidential scandal shortly before election day. The ease with which DeNiro's and Hoffman's characters were able to hoodwink the press into accepting rumors that Albania was harboring "terrorists" and that a "suitcase dirty bomb" was about to be transported into the United States by Albanian terrorists through Canada makes it appear that this farcical film was written after Operation Iraqi Freedom (originally Operation Iraqi Liberation but scrapped for obvious acronymic reasons) rather than before.

The threatened "Quran-burning" which, even when aborted, has provided al-Qaeda with a bonanza of a recruiting opportunity calls to mind another example of PR trumping news: a Billy Wilder movie, "Ace in the Hole" (1951) in which Kirk Douglas plays a cynical reporter who stumbles on a story about a lone miner trapped in a cave-in. Knowing the longer the story is spun the more coverage it will get, he cons the mining engineers into taking a slower route to rescue the miner who, as a consequence, dies before they can get to him.

However, neither of these movies could anticipate the truly carnival atmosphere (the alternate title to Wilder's movie was The Big Carnival) created by the publicity seeking minister and the effect his planned action of stupidity would generate. It was the kind of story that, in saner times, before the media was so pathetically competing for viewers of the bizarre and moronic, would be relegated to a four-line item at the back of the minister's local paper along with the reported rescue of a treed cat or a description of a Sunday school picnic.

But I do think that the Reverend Jones' meteoric rise to national prominence deserves some form of positive emulation. So I propose that for the purpose of introducing a more constructive agenda into our national consciousness: a college student from a prominent university will threaten to burn ("threatening" would be sufficient) an outrageously overpriced textbook in front of his college bookstore. The press -- local and national -- would be invited to witness the threatened event and would be provided with informational literature demonstrating the enormous list price of the book compared to its production cost.

Today, the press and the media in general, which include blogs, tweets and yawlps (a new form of electronic communication I would like to develop consisting of belch and yawn reader reactions to political blogs) seem to thrive on the kind of news that is filled with misinformation, misperceptions and negative feelings about our fellow Americans and others. Since its efforts have aided and abetted the toxic political climate we now face, I would hope that my suggested contribution to national news might foment a more constructive use of a destructive act: raise the national awareness of how college students are being ripped off by "higher" (priced) education.

It would be a welcome change if once in a while the media would martial their considerable resources to address the more serious problems facing this country such as joblessness, homelessness and helplessness plaguing Americans than their over-extensive coverage of pissing contests between second-rate politicians with third-rate minds and fourth-rate vocabularies as if their rants made a damn bit of difference in dealing with the realities of this rapidly declining democratic system.