Politics in the Age of Infotainment
Play the Clip!
Saturday, March 10, 2012
So is it just me, or is everyone heartily sick of hearing about the Republican presidential candidates?
Yes, we all know I’m not a Republican, but this isn’t about party. If the Democratic candidates had held 19 debates (Wikipedia says 20 now — ack!), and been trotted out again and again for news stories, and pretended high dudgeon about any and everything that the other party was doing, I’d be just as disgusted. I mean, how many staged events do we need in order to get a sense of who a candidate is? How is it possible not to have made up your mind yet about any of these people, given the endlessly repetitive news coverage, the posturing, and name-calling?
Even as I type this, I hear NPR on in the background, doing yet another story about some super PAC spending some outrageous amount in some primary state on behalf of some candidate or another. It’s not that the existence of Super PACs isn’t important; I’m of the camp that thinks the Citizens United decision will make small “d” democracy even less possible, as the rich simply buy election outcomes through avalanches of unrestricted spending. But how am I better informed by hearing essentially the same coverage of the same basic facts, again and again?
That’s the heart of the problem, of course: the need for something to cover, for “content” as the cable providers like to say. Although I find right-wing characterizations of the media — “lamestream,” “liberal,” whatever — to be childish and inaccurate, I do agree that the media use political coverage as filler: It takes up time, fills columns. Presumably the media powers-that-be think that this is what the public wants, that it will keep eyeballs on screens (or paper). Assuredly there are focus groups and poll results that support the choice to inundate us day after day after day with the same stories about the same people saying mostly the same things.
Of course, this form of coverage is easy. Reporters don’t have to go far to get material or dig for little-known facts (no one seems interested in uncovering deep, dark secrets anymore). It’s cheap, too, to just play clips of controversial comments — so that the clips have become news in their own right, rather than evidence of something more substantial. Santorum called President Obama a snob? Play the clip! Gingrich promised to have a moon colony with statehood by the end of his second term — hear it here! That’s the end and extent of what most media outlets seem to feel obliged to cover.
Like a lot of frustrated people, I get much of my news from a TV program that satirizes the news business: The Daily Show. If the “real” media plays that Santorum clip and considers the story reported, Jon Stewart sets that clip against what Obama actually said — thus giving me the information to decide if Santorum is making a legitimate statement, or if he’s a misinformed, demagoguing asshole. (I think you know the conclusion I drew.) Conservatives tend not to like Stewart’s liberalism, but the guy is happy to go after left-wing bullshit, too — he’s made a mockery of MSNBC, although not as often as FOX News. Then again, FOX News is so insistent in putting out propaganda masquerading as news, it’s an irresistible target.
What I really want is some proportion in my news. I listen to NPR because it’s not super-superficial fluff, like the TV news. And for all its imperfections, it’s not empty opinion-spewing, like talk radio. (I’m an equal opportunity boycotter of both left- and right-wing pundits — I can make up my own mind just fine, thank you, and don’t enjoy being riled up even by really smart people I agree with. Sorry, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow.) But what I want is for news coverage to be proportionate to the true significance of what is being covered. What I want is diversity of coverage: less on American primary campaign, more on what’s going in Japan a year after the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disaster, more on the impending end of most bananas due to a fungal disease. I want news that doesn’t make the presidential election coverage more important — and at the same time less important — than it really is.
But politics these days is infotainment, a who’s-most-popular contest no different from American Idol. Except, of course, that on American Idol the most talented contestants generally win. There’s no such guarantee in the circus that is an American presidential campaign.