Author Lee Pfeiffer offers his opinion on the James Bond rumour debacle and the decline of modern journalism...

Opinion - Live And Let Lie
17th October 2005

MI6 announces a new feature today. Periodically, MI6 will be presenting editorials and opinion pieces about issues relating to the world of James Bond. The series begins with a column by author Lee Pfeiffer.


Now that the announcement has finally been made that Daniel Craig is indeed the new 007, thousands of fans are undoubtedly licking their wounds over the fact that the most qualified candidate will not be strapping on Mr. Bond’s shoulder holster. I speak, of course, of the acting dynamo Rikki Lee Travolta who, according to his publicist’s seemingly omnipresent press releases, had been the beneficiary of a groundswell of grassroots fan support, as evidenced by the tidal wave of editions of “Casino Royale” that his fan base allegedly sent to him. Over 135,000 according to his press release. An amazing feat given that it’s doubtful 135,000 copies of the book have been in print in the last quarter century. I had never dreamed that Fleming’s seminal novel was so available to the public. At my corner drugstore it seems every book has to be written by Stephen King or have Fabio on the cover. We were also told that Mr. Travolta was a member of the legendary acting family - you know, similar to the Barrymores and the Fondas. Now, I had only been aware of the Travolta who scored big in “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease”. However, I freely admit to being a bit out of touch with contemporary pop culture (I’ve largely sworn off t.v. in protest of the cancellation of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” back in ’68). I discovered it was easier to locate Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction than the credentials of the other Travolta acting legends. Thus, I went to reliable old to examine their achievements. Ah yes, there was Joey Travolta, one of the stars of the immortal “3 Ninjas Kick Back” and several female Travoltas who coincidentally had career highlights appearing in small roles in films starring….John Travolta.

Rikki Lee, however, is different. According to his official bio, he “worked” with Ron Howard. This magnificent collaboration consisted of Mr. Travolta’s stint as an uncredited double on Howard’s 1999 film “EdTv”. The multi-talented Travolta has also authored a novel about “has-been and never-were actors” (to comment on this would be like shooting a fish in a barrel, so I’ll respectfully decline). A cynic might say that a press agent hatched this entire hype about Rikki Lee Travolta being on the short-list of Bond actors, but I don’t believe it despite the fact that his name might be more appropriate on a “Beach Blanket Bingo” remake than a cinematic translation of Ian Fleming’s work.

I would prove the story is true by providing a photo of Mr. Travolta sitting amidst 135,000 copies of “Casino Royale” editions sent to him by his adoring public, but –blast it all!- his PR people have announced that all of these books have already been generously donated to worthy causes. Just think—truckloads of Fleming books being delivered to impoverished people, hurricane and Tsunami survivors all around the world! Sadly, just days before the casting announcement, a stunned world learned that Mr. Travolta had removed himself from the role of 007. This bombshell obviously resonated at the Eon offices in Piccadilly, causing the nervous and undoubtedly panic-stricken producers to quickly fill the Travolta gap with Daniel Craig. Bond fans can only ponder what might have been, as nothing exemplifies British culture more than the name….Travolta!

Above: Rikki Lee Travolta in a self publicising shot as "Bond"

The above events might be written off as the byproduct of overly zealous press agents. After all, Mr. Travolta isn’t the only actor simultaneously trying to capitalize on a more famous sibling whilst developing his own persona. However, the fact that the international press picked up on it and routinely listed Travolta as serious candidate goes to the heart of a far more serious matter: a virtual breakdown in traditional journalism standards. It’s been a long tradition to speculate who will be the next James Bond actor and wild rumours are nothing new. In 1994, I dined with Cubby and Dana Broccoli in New York when “GoldenEye” was in pre-production. Cubby confided that evening that Pierce Brosnan would be the new Bond, but of course it was all still top secret. Cubby was a master at getting the press do his PR work. He enjoyed the endless speculation from people who claimed to have “inside sources” about the casting. The free publicity was a producer’s dream. As if to prove the point, the following day newspapers reported the latest rumours about who would be the next Bond. They ranged from the sublime (Sam Neill) to the ridiculous (Eddie Murphy, Sharon Stone). The newspapers that dutifully reported this swill didn’t distract themselves by showing any skepticism or challenging the sources for these stories. After all, it was more important to sell a newspaper than get the story correct.

Sloppy reporting in the mainstream media is nothing new. The first installment of the laughable “Hitler Diaries” were published in England in the early 1980s even though there was enough time to stop the presses when it was revealed that old Adolf’s memoirs were written decades after The Fuehrer had been burned to a crisp in the ruins of his Berlin Bunker. The New York Post famously reported on a headline in the late 1970s that The Beatles would reunite for a concert to benefit Vietnamese boat people. The story was discounted by the next day, but I’m still anxiously awaiting the retraction that I’m sure The Post intends to run. The problem of erroneous reporting would not be a major concern if it were relegated to unimportant stories about show business. However, in the Internet age, the pressure to fill 24-hour cable news slots and web sites has lead to an almost complete abandonment of traditional journalistic standards. The insatiable beast must constantly be fed. Thus, the mantra of the media seems to be “Better to Be First Than Accurate!”. This has manifested itself in embarrassing public relations disasters among some of the most estimable news organizations in the last year alone. The BBC aired flawed reports linking the suicide of a scientist to Tony Blair’s Iraq policies. Legendary American anchorman Dan Rather of CBS had an inglorious end to a 50 -year career after rushing to the air with a “scandal” about George Bush’s military record. (The fraud was unveiled with 24 hours by the efforts of some amateur Internet bloggers.) The Daily Mirror ran front page photos of British troops abusing Iraqi prisoners that were later proven to be fabrications and America’s “Paper of Record”, the New York Times ran many front page stories by reporter Jayson Blair, who later admitted they were largely works of fiction. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we heard stories and “eyewitness reports” of wholesale murders, shootings and rapes- most of which never occurred. In most of these cases heads rolled and careers were ruined- and yet, the practice goes on unabated. There seems to be a complete lack of skepticism, which should always be a news organization’s first line of defense. It’s truly a sad day when bloggers become more adept at sorting out truth than news organizations with all of their resources. They would do well to take a lesson from this web site, as MI6 routinely reports the latest rumours du jour, but also provides valuable analysis of that helps identify the veracity of the stories. If only the mainstream media organizations showed such skepticism.

It would be unfair to criticize all reporters or news organizations as being ineffective. Good journalists should be regarded as true heroes, even though it’s unlikely you’ll find pinups of them next to soccer stars on the walls of teenager’s bedrooms. This week we saw a rare example of competent reporters doing their job when President Bush’s “spontaneous” chat with soldiers in Iraq was revealed to have been thoroughly coached and rehearsed (complete with a stand-in for the president telling a soldier what inflections to use when asking her question). The resulting embarrassment will go a long way to insure the next politician will think twice before attempting a similar stunt. All too often, however, the media slants one way or another and seeks to overlook egregious instances such as this if it perpetrated by a political party or group with whom they sympathize. Going after George Bush may be like snagging the low-hanging fruit given his political woes of recent months, but how many reporters grilled Michael Moore about the inconsistencies and fabrications of “Fahrenheit 9/11”? For the most part, he was able to present even the fictitious aspects of the film as pure fact. When Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward uncovered the Watergate scandal- the most explosive political story of the century- their boss at the Washington Post Ben Bradlee refused to run the piece until a painstaking amount of fact checking convinced him the allegations could be substantiated. In today’s news media, if the facts can’t be checked by airtime, then run the story anyway. Retractions are rarely given even if careers and reputations are ruined.

I anticipate the situation will only worsen as the old-line traditional news reporters continue to retire or be forced out the door. Once-vaunted American news networks are now relegated to endless coverage of missing teenage girls (all blonde, pretty and white, by the way. Missing minority teenagers need not apply.) Rumours circulate that the once great CBS News (the subject of George Clooney’s acclaimed new film “Goodnight and Good Luck”) may be headed by a former MTV executive in order to make the news more relevant for the youth market. On both sides of the Atlantic, news organizations dutifully promote entertainers in the guise of a legitimate story. Who needs to know about such mundane matters as the nuclear threats posed by Iran and North Korea when we can hear Paris Hilton’s deep thoughts?

The Bond casting saga is just exemplifies all of this in a microscopic way. Last April I was traveling in England with my business partner Dave Worrall. He received a phone call from a frantic newspaper reporter who needed to know the inside story of who would be the new Bond. When Worrall said he didn’t know and wouldn’t divulge the information if he did, the man expressed frustration. This was Friday afternoon and he said he had no leads at all for finding out the scoop. On Sunday morning I opened the newspaper only to find this gentleman had amazingly found an unnamed source. The story was printed that the new Bond would be announced that week at a big press conference in London. Not to be outdone, a rival paper issued its own story saying that Clive Owen would be announced that week at a big press conference in London. As with The Beatles reunion, I’m still waiting for retractions or clarifications.

I’m also amused when the media employ the services of freelance “experts” on certain topics who seem to have little or no knowledge of the subjects they are employed to speak about. I still recall New York t.v film critic Pia Lindstrom (daughter of Ingrid Bergman) reviewing “The Living Daylights” and consistently referring to the actor who portrayed the villain as “Brad Whitaker”. Whitaker, of course, was the character played by Joe Don Baker, who was already a well- established name in the film business. However, such distinctions never seem to disqualify one from being a film critic in the most prestigious broadcast market in the world. In the immediate aftermath of the Daniel Craig announcement, CNN dragged out a pop culture “expert” who assured us that with the exception of Pierce Brosnan, all of the prior Bonds were unknowns when they got the part- including Roger Moore. Yes, old Roger was a virtual unknown- except to the millions of fans he had amassed worldwide from playing The Saint for many years prior to taking on the Bond role.

The lesson is clear- one must look skeptically at all aspects of news coverage from benign fluff pieces about show business to the far more important coverage of international politics. An uninformed, disinterested public is a PR spinmeister’s greatest ally.

I understand that Warner Brothers is preparing a major motion picture biography of Ian Fleming. I hope Rikki Lee Travolta’s fans don’t mind sending him replacement copies of “Casino Royale” as my unnamed sources tell me he’s a shoo-in for the role. I only hope the publishers can quickly get another 135,000 copies into print!

About The Author
LEE PFEIFFER is the co-author (with Dave Worrall) of “The Essential James Bond: An Authorized Guide to the World of 007” (Boxtree, London; Harper Colliins, New York). He is also the editor-in-chief of the film magazine Cinema Retro ( Commencing in February, 2006 he will be teaching a course titled “Cold War Cinema” at New York University.

Shortly after this article was printed on the MI6 website, it was discovered that The Daily Texan newspaper of Austin, Texas announced the new 007 in a story headlined: "Craig David Named New James Bond". Asked to comment, Lee Pfeiffer replied: "As if to illustrate the point of my article, it's now apparently asking too much to even get the headline of a story accurate. Every writer, including myself has made errors in stories or books. However, the sheer magnitude of the problem is growing exponentially. The fact that they couldn't get Daniel Craig's name right after he had become the subject of an international media frenzy speaks volumes about the sad state of accuracy in the media today."

The views of this columnist and those expressed in this article are not necessarily those of or its owners.