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26 October 2004

The POTUS Podium and the Tube

An extra-scary Halloween, then another lousy Election Day. A season when the media obsess over who’s winning while giving us little in the way of what the victory of one Bonesman over the other will mean to our lives. Well, what is The Corner Oak if not a media outlet, so let me spend a column ignoring policy and focusing on the race along with the rest of the color commentators.

Let’s further narrow the subject to how television covers the race. Sure, you can often get intelligent, thoughtful discussion in newspapers and news magazines, but most Americans get their info from the tube. And, for that reason, coupled with decades of miseducation intended to create an obedient, docile populace of low-wage producers and indebted consumers incapable of critical thinking, campaigns today are mostly fought via sequences of contrived imagery. Consider Kerry’s recent goose hunt in Ohio. The fact that the man can blow away a honker has precisely nothing to do with policy. What a shame that wildlife have to be slaughtered in order to prove the candidate is just as bloody a killer as his famously sanguinary opponent. But such stunts have to be staged for the benefit of an electorate of telezombies, incapable of thought but accustomed to visceral, reflex reactions to violent imagery on the small screen. In the 21st century, the world’s most vital job is given not to the smarter or more experienced millionaire (plebeians, of course, need not apply) — it goes to the guy who comes off best in what amounts to a series of rock videos (without the music).

Video purveyors, of course, are smarter than they perceive their audience to be. While the ranting heads have been accused of both conservative and liberal bias, as I observed following the screwed-up 2000 election, what the viderati really want is a close race:

The system manufactured a pair of candidates with nearly identical bios: both WASP sons of political privilege, both with elite educations, both about the same age, both happily married, both devout Christians, both from the shallow South. And television, devoted to keeping the race close so viewers would keep watching, cunningly deployed a series of gotchas meant to drive down the numbers of whichever guy seemed to be gaining. Marketing techniques proved so successful that they engineered a virtual tie.

Their other bias is toward telegenicity. As commentators such as Bob Somerby of The Daily Howler have detailed, Al Gore couldn’t get a break from the t.v. establishment. Clearly, that was not based on his policy positions; rather, newsroom animosity towards Gore was driven by his persona that played poorly on television. You can just imagine these folks sitting around and sighing, I won’t be able to stand four years of watching this guy, irrespective of his politics.

Thus Kerry was judged to have won the debates, not based on a better vision for the country (neither candidate has a credible plan for exiting Iraq or controlling the deficit) but because he “looked more Presidential,” while Bush seemed uncomfortable and grimaced. We can’t be governed by a man with inappropriate facial expressions, now can we? The debates did move the polls a few points but what really matters in American elections is not the electorate, but how television chooses to frame the candidate. The framers of the national spectacle decided Kerry looked okay on the tube, giving them license to press for a closer race (ensuring high ratings for news teams). For television purposes, the right man is a tall, supermasculine dominator who can inspire confidence in his ruthless attitude toward killing (dead geese , opposition to capital punishment — by Dukakis — no) while acting as the national pastor and intoning smarmy platitudes about the Christian God.

(When I hear that dumb cliché bully pulpit, this is what I think of: Two super-macho guys cutting each other up from a podium. With these two candidates touting their holiness, “pulpit” is all too apt.)

With one week left, the race is “too close to call” and the video people must be in heaven. Two domineering warriors in a nail-biter of an election. And we can expect careful manipulation of imagery to keep the race close. If we wind up with another disputed finish, that means another bonanza for newsrooms. Bourgeois riot in Florida! Corrupt, vicious lawyers scheme for dominance! Think of the human-interest angle of Justice Rehnquist deciding the election while fighting cancer! Television, it seems, is the opposite of business: What’s good for t.v. is what’s bad for America.

Now, in the middle of this deadly farce, comes another spectacle: The Red Sox facing the Cardinals in an attempt to undo the “Curse of the Bambino” by winning their first World Series since 1918. Of course, a Sox-Astros Series would have been even more deliciously political, with the neat Texas : Massachusetts :: Bush : Kerry parallel. But, even before I could finish this article, Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter offered reasons why the Red Sox winning the pennant could help Kerry.

The Red Sox victory makes the Bush-is-inevitable line harder to pursue. A last-minute come-from-behind win by Kerry suddenly seems more plausible, which in turn will rally Democrats to work harder on Election Day. If Kerry goes in to the final weekend down by five points, well, the Red Sox won, for the first time ever, when they were down by three games.

But Alter misses one big point. Voters will likely not make the connection between the Red Sox and the Massachusetts neocon, I mean, “liberal” unless the media do it for them. Thus Alter’s piece amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy: Red Sox success offers a frame for a story in which supposed Massachusetts wimpdom (an image this former Bay Stater heartily detests) has morphed into Mass. machismo, whether that means shaggy “idiots” swinging bats, or an ex-warrior plugging ganders in a swing state.

Thus our unthinking electorate gets manipulated once again by its favorite cool medium. When printing was introduced in the late Renaissance, the result was a century of political chaos as Europeans dealt with the challenge posed by pamphlets and broadsides to the aristocracy of the day. But the result was the reasoned theories of Hobbes, Locke, and other political thinkers, leading to an era of democracy. In these times of war and chaos, the world does not have a century to find a way to reconcile television and democracy. Printing led to the Enlightenment; television threatens to bring a global Endarkenment. Let’s hope Americans outgrow their infantile reaction to television’s thoughtless imagery. Yep, it’s an extra-scary Halloween.

Turn over another new leaf:
9 July 2004
Dear Hamoud

Meet your new job — same as my old job.

29 June 2004
Blonde Ambitions

Madonna calls Dr. Laura.

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