November 17, 2022

When televison and politics discovered each other

 From our overstocked archives

Sam Smith, 2012  -
The trouble began when television and politics discovered each other. It was about 1960. Now politics no longer had to be a product of long history, varied communities, conflicting policies, favors, friends and funds. Now it could be reduced to two dimensions, measured in minutes and controlled by a small, powerful elite. You no longer needed to understand, help, or deal with whole constituencies. Now they were just more consumers who walked into the voting booth like it was a convenience store. You didn’t have know them or make their lives better, only how to sell to them.

The first big beneficiary of this new relationship was a young guy named John F. Kennedy. Because of his tragic end a few years later, he became larger than life. But at the beginning he had little but looks, charm and money. Robert Caro tells the story in his new book on Lyndon Johnson, quoting fellow senator George Smathers as saying, “While he did from time to time make some brilliant speech about something or other. .. he was not what you would call a really effective senator. . . He had a couple of pretty good ideas that he talked about, but I don’t know that anything he ever really passed. . . was of significance.” Johnson was even tougher, calling him “pathetic” and adding, “He never said a word of importance in the Senate, and he never did a thing.”

But it no longer mattered. Politics was becoming personality rather than programs and policies.

But since history moves in thumps and bumps, it would be some time before TV took charge again. And so we had our last four traditional politicians as president: Johnson, Nixon, Carter and Ford.

Then a real TV pro showed up.

Ronald Reagan sold political lies just like the ones that gave people lung cancer from his Chesterfield cigarettes. As Robert Lekachman put it, “Ronald Reagan must be the nicest president who ever destroyed a union, tried to cut school lunch milk rations from six to four ounces, and compelled families in need of public help to first dispose of household goods in excess of $1,000.”

Yet that was one of the great assets of TV. It could make virtue seem stupid and greed appear noble. As I wrote in my book, Why Bother?:

Sometime around the middle of the 1980s I suddenly noticed that the truth was no longer setting people free; it was only making them drowsy. This realization first came in the midst of a meeting held to discuss a worthy investigative journalism project. We had considered every aspect of the proposal save one and now, unbidden, a heretical question wiggled into my mind, never to leave: did the truth being sought really matter anymore? . . .

We were, I had belatedly noticed, embarked upon an age that denied the existence of objective truth and, by extension, the value of any facts that might point to it. This was now an age, as philosophy professor Rick Roderick put it, when everything once directly lived was being turned into a representation of itself -- news no less than anything else. As one frustrated television journalist explained, "I used to be a reporter for the Washington Post; now I play one on TV."

In the end we are left not with reality but with a recreated memory of reality, the repeated replacement of human experience. We watched Michael Jordan, Roderick argued, to remember what a life filled with physical exertion was about; similarly it can be said that we view C-SPAN to remember what democracy was about.. .

But if there is no value in truth and the real, then there is no value in challenging the lack of these qualities. If nothing is real then what is left to report other than the image of what was once real? Hence the disappearance of facts from the media and their replacement by polls, pronouncements, and perceptions. Hence the growing feeling as we catch the evening news that we are watching a movie about television news that we've already seen and didn't like much.

Even more troubling questions emerge. If there is no reality, what guides us in our choices? Do we simply become one more perception that we market to other perceptions?

Everywhere we turn we are confronted with the hegemony of the artificial, the sovereignty of the fake. . . .

In fact, an extraordinary portion of the gross domestic product is currently devoted to deception in one form or another, concealed though it may be as marketing, advertising, management, leadership seminars, news, entertainment, politics, public relations, religion, psychic hotlines, education, ab machine infomercials, and the law.

We have become a nation of hustlers and charlatans, increasingly choosing attitude over action and presentation over performance and becoming unable to tell the difference. It's not all that surprising because, whether for pleasure, profit, or promotion, and in ways subtle and direct, our society encourages and rewards those who out-sell, out-argue, and out-maneuver those around them -- with decreasing concern for any harm caused along the way. As they say in Hollywood, the most important thing is sincerity. Once you've learned how to fake that, the rest is easy. . .

And you didn’t even need a professional actor like Ronald Reagan to make it work. A reasonably appealing personality backed by well crafted scripts and a supportive media was enough. After all, the media was on TV as well and you didn’t get asked back for asking too many hard questions.

As for the Internet, which was meant to be a great liberating tool for democracy, it had exploded during a period when the U.S. has taken its most dramatic shift to the right in history. While this doesn’t mean it is to blame, it certainly - along with cellphones – redefined contact as a brief, one dimensional experience through Facebook, texting, or email - aiding the atomization of individuals. The media had become social but its users less so.

The struggle to change politics back from being just another TV show won’t be easy, but the best start is to help people step away from the myth. And one of the ways to do that is to make the issues – not the actors – the center of the debate.

There are other things we need such a counter culture that mocks and demythicizes flat screen politics. We need local democracy that redefines the real just as local food has redefined our groceries. And we need a revival of the sort of grassroots organizing that created the civil rights, environmental and labor movements.

If we use such tools and free our minds and methods from television’s definition of politics, we can seek, discuss and achieve the real and not just accept a Super PAC funded TV dream which ends in our real disaster.

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