By Tom Robotham
I wanna grow up to be a politician, and take over this beautiful land. – Roger McGuinn.
If you want to understand politics in the age of 24/7 “news” media, look no further than CNN’s “coverage” on July 30, 2019.
“It’s game day!” one anchor announced as a countdown clock ticked away in the lower right hand corner of the screen.
The “game” to which she was referring was the first of two Democratic debates, scheduled to begin on the network that evening. From then on, throughout the day, panel after panel gathered to discuss what might happen during these showdowns. Will Sanders and Warren attack each other? Will Harris hammer Biden again? Will Buttigieg get that bump he desperately needs?
Who, in short, would have that “viral moment”?—the quippy sound bite that gets repeated airplay.
As if this weren’t enough, the network promoted the debate four or five times per hour, with melodramatic commercials reminiscent of ads for the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Watching this circus unfold, I couldn’t help thinking again of Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. I’ve mentioned it in this space before, but it’s worth revisiting. Given that the book was published in 1985, you might reasonably wonder what it could possibly have to say about public discourse in 2019. But to my mind, it is more relevant than ever. I would go so far as to say, in fact, that it is the most prophetic book published in the last 50 years.
Postman’s premise was that while we once worried about the prospect of Orwellian dictatorship, it was actually Aldous Huxley’s prophecy in Brave New World that had come to fruition.
“Huxley,” Postman wrote, “feared that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.” He feared, “the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance” and that we would become a culture preoccupied with “trivia,” given our “almost infinite appetite for distractions.”
The engine driving this cultural development, Postman argued, was television. The problem, as he saw it, wasn’t a lack of “good” programming. The problem was that the very nature of the medium made serious discourse impossible. The medium had cast everything—very much including politics—as entertainment.
“As I write,” he noted in his first chapter, “the President of the United States [Ronald Reagan] is a former Hollywood movie actor.”
Were he alive today, Postman wouldn’t be at all surprised that the current occupant of the White House is a former reality-television star. Indeed, it may be inaccurate to use the word “former.” One could argue that Trump’s presidency—and the news media’s coverage of it—has been little more than a spinoff of Celebrity Apprentice.
To his great credit, candidate Andrew Yang said as much in the debate: “He we are,” he observed, “in our makeup, with our rehearsed attack lines, playing roles in this reality-TV show.”
Unfortunately, all the other candidates played along earnestly, dutifully behaving as if the Emperor really did have a fine new set of clothes.
I’ll acknowledge that there were a few other moments of real insight, notably from Buttigieg.
“It’s time to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say,” he argued. “It’s true that if we embrace a far left agenda, they’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. If we embrace a conservative agenda, you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. Let’s stand up for the right policy, go up there and defend it.”
With that comment, he was essentially making the same point that Yang did–albeit in more nuanced terms. Trump knows that it doesn’t matter whether a particular policy proposal is an example of socialism. All he needs to do is call it that—on television and Twitter—and millions of people will believe it.
Buttigieg deserves credit for recognizing this, in contrast to many of the other so-called “moderates” who are insisting that the party needs to avoid alienating “middle America” with “far-left” policy proposals.
The trouble with Buttigieg’s statement is that politics isn’t primarily about ideas anymore. It’s about creating a mass-media persona, bolstered by buzzwords and phrases designed to appeal to emotion, rather than intellect.
This was Postman’s core argument back in 1985, and it is even truer today in the age of social media. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, after all, are not really “new” media so much as they are the progeny of television. They work in the same fundamental way, with their reliance on a sea of images or, in the case of Twitter, the text-equivalent of the televised sound bite—quick, easy and utterly devoid of depth.
In the process, our attention span has been severely eroded. Television and its progeny, after all, don’t just reward shallowness. They undermine our ability to linger on a given topic or idea for any length of time. This explains why, when there’s a mass shooting, we engage in national handwringing for a week or so, then move on to something else entirely. It also explains why Trump can say the most outrageous and offensive thing imaginable and get away with it; he understands that if he begins to get too much heat, all he has to do is make some other outrageous remark, and the previous outrage will be quickly forgotten.
And therein lies the challenge faced by Democrats: they cannot beat Trump at his own game because he’s too good at it. On the other hand, they cannot win on serious policy debates because he won’t play that game. Trump, after all, has no coherent policy platform. He has, as far as I can tell, two tactics on which he relies: impulsive Tweets, which regularly contradict each other (the better to keep pundits talking) and schoolyard name-calling. His dealings with North Korea have exemplified both: First he mocked Kim Jong Un as “Little Rocket Man” and threatened to obliterate the entirety of North Korea; then he and Kim “fell in love.” The calculated insanity works precisely like reality-TV: What will happen next time on The Celebrity President? Stay tuned.
The irony is that CNN—which he loves to bash as “fake news”—is one of his greatest allies in all of this. In staging two debates with 10 candidates apiece, they made any serious conversation utterly impossible—and in gleefully promoting it in the manner of a UFC bout, they forecast their intention to make it about entertainment, while disingenuously presenting it as something serious.
This is nothing new, of course. One could argue that it began with the first televised debate between Kennedy and Nixon—a debate that Kennedy won largely on his dashing good looks—and has simply gotten worse over time, from Bill Clinton hamming it up with his sax on Arsenio Hall to Howard Dean’s sudden implosion in 2004 as a result of a single sound bite.
Alas, there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. Our electronic mass media are what they are. Nor are personal boycotts the answer. A lot of people I know don’t watch television, but they’re subjected to its impact nevertheless, through mass sharing of TV video clips on social media.
No, television and its progeny are here to stay. The best we can do, Postman argued, is to diligently apply ourselves to the task of becoming more critical consumers of mass media—especially electronic media, which rattle our brains with unrelated fragments of information. One minute a grieving El Paso resident is crying on television, and a split second later you’re learning that the new Subaru Ascent has 19 cup-holders. Scrolling through a Facebook news feed is even worse in this regard.
So what are we to do?
Postman argued at the end of his book that the solution lies in teaching media literacy and consciousness. The challenge is formidable. For those of us who never knew a world without television, the medium is just there, like the trees outside your window and the 7-Eleven on the corner. We rarely stop to think about how they affect our psyches. Soon, we’ll have a generation that never knew life without “smart” phones.
If there’s any hope for our democracy, such as it is, it lies in all of us working to understand not only what information is being presented to us, but also how it’s being presented. The news that a political debate is coming up, after all, is one thing. Listening to a hyped-up anchor calling it “game day” is quite another matter.