Alan Charlton

Front Runner probes media’s love of dirt

Voices Nov. 21, 2018

U.S. Senator Gary Hart, right, had his 1988 bid for the White House derailed when media reported allegations of an extramarital affair. Thirty years later, The Front Runner raises timely questions about media coverage of politicians’ private lives, writes Alan Charlton. (Wikimedia Commons)

Regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, there is little doubt that more people than ever, particularly those under 30, seem to be interested in what is happening in the world of politics. In large part, this seems to have been spurred by the advent of President Donald Trump, who has managed to engender considerable attention from the media – and hence the body politic in general.

Regardless of the position one takes with regard to the president, there is little doubt that much of the controversy surrounding him has less to do with his political agenda and more to do with matters such as his personal approach to his office. This is why the new release, The Front Runner, has such relevance.

In the lead-up to the U.S. presidential election in 1988, Senator Gary Hart was widely considered the front runner for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination. His bid for the highest office in his country was derailed when a purported extramarital affair was reported in the press. At the time and to this day, the question being raised is just how much a candidate’s private life should weigh in an elector’s decision on supporting the candidate.

Of course, the events of some 30 years ago are ancient history for many and probably half-forgotten by the rest. In this respect, The Front Runner, particularly in its opening half-hour tends to be more confusing than instructive as it attempts to show the interplay of campaign strategy, media coverage, and personal conflicts. A sharper, more linear approach would have made the film more accessible. However, as the issues become clearer, so too do the questions the film raises.

Just what should the role of the media be when reporting on political figures? As the film itself indicates, several prominent (and often widely admired political leaders) in the past led lives which were not marked by an adherence to traditional moral values. When the media started reporting on such matters, it was a clear break with the past.

So it is that the first and most obvious question the film raises is just how much such moral concerns should influence electors. This leads to a further question in that while traditional morality may have played a deciding role in Hart’s downfall, it seems to weigh much less so today. After all, if one is to believe the polls (and one can be forgiven if one does not), much of President Trump’s support comes from evangelical Christians, even though he appears with some certainty to have broken several of the Commandments. This leads to a further question as to why this change in morality’s influence has occurred.

At the same time, the film, set just before technology was going to make invasion of privacy even easier, also poses questions surrounding the role of the media in politics. Is such invasion simply an attempt to boost audience ratings? Is it done in order to outdo media rivals? Is it politically relevant once a person in office? And, of course, underlying all this, how relevant is it to a candidate’s political qualifications and actions?

As if this were not enough, the film also raises the question of mistreatment of women by men in power. Hart’s affair is made to appear as an abuse of power by a man of influence. Clearly this has enormous resonance today. Rising from this is yet another concern: media revelation clearly causes harm to others as they are subjected to the glare of publicity – not only to those who participated in the reported act, but also to the perpetrators’ family. Here again, the question arises: what is the valid role of the media when reporting what is claimed to be news?

So it is that The Front Runner is not a perfectly written film, but it is often dramatic, beautifully acted, and not without moments of satirical humour. All of this however is secondary to the important issues it raises. It should provide opportunity for debate in the coffee shop afterwards and around the family dinner table. In the light of the present interest in politics, this is certainly much more than many films accomplish and is very welcome in this regard.