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THE THRILL OF RATINGS AND THE AGONY OF GRIDLOCK

By Polar Levine, March 15, 2010
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Lose your job? Can't afford necessary health care? Kids flunking out of school? Your pursuit of happiness finding no suitors? One could be excused for being depressed and/or pissed off. A year ago it seemed sure that the Dems would turn things around and prevent the imminent Decline of the American Empire. But the Republicans have figured out that in the Senate, 41 is the majority. Even after the catastrophic W years they're surging. And it should be no surprise. They learned that depression drains energy while anger, fear and loathing crank up the adrenaline. Legions of sad-sack aging white folks are useless to the Right. Too lethargic to fight for god's favorite nation, they might be vulnerable to actual information and start voting for their own interests. And we all know how those egghead liberals love to explain things. But on the heels of the Sixties New Left, the Right knows that the political honey spot is fear and hate. It feels good to be pissed and know exactly whom you're pissed at. It's an amphetamine rush, an aphrodisiac.
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If political propaganda warfare were simply grist for sports chat, it would be dumb but harmless. But the success of the strategy has given Senate Republicans the backbone to shut the government down in the middle of an economic crisis and two wars. Though the media profits by presenting politics as sports, it doesn't do the country any good when the debate revolves around Obama's alleged commitment to communism, health care reform's goal of exterminating everybody's grandparents, refuting climate change with no sense that weather (particularly local weather conditions) and climate are two different things, or the claim there were no terrorist attacks during the W administration.
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Recent polls concerning support for the Tea Party movement indicate that the vast majority of those polled know nothing or too little about the movement to have an opinion. That suggests a year of willful and/or time-crunched ignorance on the part of two-thirds of the American electorate. When that majority starts to get curious about what's going on in the world, what kind of information will it respond to -- an elegant and nuanced exposition of complex proposals for much needed reform, or dire warnings of fascist dictatorship with enraged calls to arms?
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It's pretty scary when a society, arguably the most powerful and influential in the world, lacks the historical, social, international and political awareness required to make informed electoral decisions. And we have a corporate media machine that has figured out that its news broadcasts will lure more advertising dollars if modeled on sitcoms and dramas: cute anchors with peppy chatter, focus on news that can be accompanied by dramatic video -- violence, tears, scandals followed by Apology As Media Event, and political punditry that favors the most videogenically combative infotainer.
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News was always a loss-leader for the TV networks until Roone Arledge took charge of news programming for ABC in the Seventies. After his masterful work in ABC's sports programming, he knew the value of its popular "Wide World of Sports" tagline, "the thrill of victory! and the agony of defeat!" With that ratings-winner aesthetic in mind, he moved news into the entertainment department -- and 40 years later, news as an entertainment medium is now the norm. The best political theater to be had is on Fox News -- by far the most viewed "news" programming on TV. There's one area where America still maintains Number One status in the world -- entertaining itself. And Fox News knows how to entertain. If not for its flair for cynical irony, it would adopt ABC's "Wild World of Sports" tagline in place of its own "fair and balanced." Its narrative could easily be mistaken for The Onion: the health care bill features death panels set up to execute your beloved grandma. Barack Obama, a Muslim native of Kenya, is devoted to enslaving Americans in a Socialist dictatorship that will bring an end to Social Security, Medicare and unemployment benefits -- only to deplete our national treasury on big government entitlements. Its world view also looks approvingly on corporate welfare, the war on drugs and marginalizing gays -- as though these were not as much the hallmarks of ĺ─˙Big Governmentĺ─¨ as taxes and regulation. This is the news that Fox News delivers and that forms the political knowledge base of many millions of our people.
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For this we can thank the most dangerous man in America -- who has done more harm to American society than any terrorist could. A foreigner who feels no allegiance to this nation. Who came over here, paid off legislators to skirt a fundamental rule that prevents the monopolization of information media. Who has turned the media into a wedge that pits one half of the nation against the other half to increase his profits. If raising the level of awareness and the quality of our political process was a ratings winner, Rupert Murdoch would have created Fox News to do just that. CNN made cable a place where serious, in-depth, world-wide news reporting was possible. Murdoch turned cable into the Circus Maximus.
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MSNBC, the perennial last place cable news outlet, finally found its niche as the lefty answer to Fox. Its two stars, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, represent the station's dilemma. Olbermann has presented infrequent but brilliant commentary and Maddow has outed the right wing Christian cult, the Family, and its involvement with Uganda's proposed draconian anti-gay legislation. She has been an invaluable resource for exposing the fraud behind congressional Republican vaudeville. These broadcasts, however, have increasingly taken on the smirking and combative flavor of the Fox crew. A fitting tagline for Olbermann's and Maddow's broadcasts would be, "We'll tell you everything those right wing assholes just said." So Fox, Limbaugh, the Family and the teabaggers provide the content for MSNBC which only confirms that idiocy as legitimate political discourse. Rarely is a Dem narrative THE STORY. Virtually the entirety of Olbermann's and Maddow's broadcasts are devoted to fact-checking the Republican/teaparty narrative with on the one hand, expressions of horror over intentional disinformation and hypocrisy and, on the other, hubristic chuckling over the anticipated embarrassment the perps will face when their constituencies find out the truth. Of course there will be no such embarrassment because the media venues that these people speak through seem uninterested in correcting the record. Maddow makes more sense when she suggests that the serious press should be embarrassed by its default of purpose. By presenting the right as laughably clueless, Olbermann and Maddow are less likely to stir their audiences than Fox which amps its viewers with a steady diet of fear and loathing. While the Left chuckles, the Republicans, who wisely kept W and Cheney out of the 2008 convention hall, give Cheney a standing ovation at the recent CPAC convention. Something serious is going on out there and the Left thinks it's a sitcom.
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Olbermann is far more persuasive when he deliveries his "Comments" than when he mugs and mimics. His arguments for serious health care reform, as personified by the struggles of his ailing father, are the most elegant and persuasive works of journalism I've ever encountered. But that stands in contrast to other recent commentary that has trended toward self-parody and invited a hilarious impersonation by John Stewart. Maddow also loses her credibility by devoting ever more time to excruciating attempts at humor. MSNBC has committed its brand to the only strategy now possible for survival on cable info programming -- partisan advocacy of the Left to compete with Fox's advocacy of the Right. CNN clings to an increasingly passive version of objectivity and its ratings are sinking for its trouble. On network TV PBS still does actual news. Did you know that? Oh yeah, and there are the networks. And a couple of newpapers.
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MSNBC has found its direction but hasn't found a Roger Ailes to create a unified delivery system that would direct its two stars either to use their impressive journalistic skills full force or join the food fight and sling a messier glop than the competition. Ailes, so far, has chosen the winning format -- get viewers as emotionally amped as possible and direct it toward easily identifiable bad guys. This requires a tightly coordinated narrative that avoids the complexity that might be caused by fair or balanced reporting. Actual professional level reportage would diffuse the element of cataclysmic menace that defines the Fox News brand. Fox is so unconcerned about its lack of credibility as a journalistic enterprise that it goes as far as to actively promote a political movement -- the teabaggers -- and still pantomimes its sincere commitment to its "Fair and Balanced" tagline. Not since Paul's campaign to brand Jesus has there been a more spectacularly successful propaganda machine.
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What the Left doesn't get is that right wing infotainers and legislators will not face embarrassment when the truth comes out because their constituencies don't watch MSNBC or read actual newspapers. Lefties are so earnest that they don't get that the Right simply lobs the ball over whatever remains of a serious press. I'm sure the Righties know that their disinformation is bullshit and are aware of all the incriminating video footage. But they know that the narrative sticks to the wall and that the Left will spend its resources setting the record straight instead of creating its own narrative.
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The only voices of the Left that have any influence are John Stewart, Steven Colbert, Bill Maher and the pre-senatorially denatured Al Franken. That's because they know what their occupation is and their audiences know it too. They deliver informed political points of view (not without bias), but the info is never delivered without some reference to the oddness of finding themselves in front of TV cameras talking about the news of the day. Their references to their self-consciousness (in or out of character) are, knowingly, an additional layer of information. Unlike Olbermann's and Maddow's lame attempts at schtick -- these guys are funny.
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Beck, Hannity and O'Reilly and their regular stable of guests also know they are not "journalists." They know they're entertainers who are skilled at making people scared and angry. Like explosions in blockbuster movies, fear and loathing form the gold standard of right wing infotainment. The Fox crew delivers a coordinated narrative. Each has developed his own character to act it out. Beck has become the most influential of the three, despite his transparently bad acting, because he is the most media-savvy. When he came over to Fox he very consciously took on a persona based on the Howard Beale character in the film, "Network." Like Beale, Beck is driven to tears by the sad state of current affairs and he wants you to scream that you aren't gonna take it any more. Beck is the feminine counterpart to O'Reilly's angry blue collar white guy and Hannity's smug, father-knows-best certainty. Like Barbara Walters and reality show producers, Beck knows that viewers love to see weeping on camera. Unlike Stewart and Colbert, Fox's vaudevillians can thrive only as long as they don't wink. I have to assume that the three morning lightweights are supposed to be the taunting high school in-crowd while Greta Van Susteren is the "serious" one. . .even when she's on camera fawning over Sarah Palin.
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The unbridgeable gridlock that now defines the American political system is the only possible outcome when the daily flow of information of huge national and international consequence is niche-marketed like pop music and hair styles. It seems more certain every day that the 2008 Democratic electoral sweep was the result of the catastrophic failure of George W Bush rather than the ability of the Dems to make a compelling case for themselves. It's odd that they've been so far ahead of the media curve online but so far behind the curve on TV. Congressmen Alan Grayson, Barney Frank and Andrew Weiner get it. Grayson cribs off the Frank Luntz playbook -- attaching "death" to all the right nouns. Frank and Weiner mouth off with gusto, and Weiner's loud, grating voice rattles TV's speakers as well as it gets under the skin of conservatives. Unless the bulbous mass of ambivalence that congressional Dems have become gets a super-majority of Andrew Weiner clones, we can expect a one-term Obama administration. And it will boast of spearheading bold placebos of incremental micro-change in the face of multiple crises that foreshadow the historic end of American prosperity. But maybe we're too hard on them. In the Age of Murdoch, if the Left can't deliver its message with the crystal-meth depravity that the Right has mastered, we can expect Glenn Beck to write the first draft of 21st Century America's history.
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In November 2012, the day Scott Brown gets elected president, the majority of young voters who made Obama's election possible will be nowhere near the voting booths. They already discovered that it's all nothing but a reality show.
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by Polar Levine for polarity1.com March 17, 2010.
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