Thursday, June 5, 2008

March 1996 (or be careful what you wish for)

What does it say about our priorities when we know more about movie and television stars, sports celebrities, or the problems of the royal family than we do about the candidates who are begging for our vote or the process they seek to undertake on our behalf? Is our fascination with such things basic to our nature or do we simply ingest what is being served to us?

Last year, at about this time, I made a half-serious appeal for politics to replace baseball as the national pastime. The possibility was very real that the baseball season might be played by replacement players, creating a window of opportunity for an astute visionary that could package the gamesmanship of legislating and political maneuvering into a product for mass consumption. The political season, now in extra-innings, has amply confirmed the possibilities, but outside of a few faithful C-Span viewers, thousands of paid lobbyists, Rush Limbaugh and the joke writers for Jay Leno, it has gone unnoticed by the populace at-large.

Television missed a perfect opportunity to advance in its mission of educating the public. Instead of exposing millions of Americans to the legislative process, they gave us talk shows with sideshow characteristics that even P.T. Barnum wouldn't have risked (not to overlook the raging success of the O.J. & Friends Show). This year has also given rise to more award shows than I would have thought possible considering the shrinking excellence of efforts. Purists complain that mediocrity deserves no celebration; that catering to artificial demands waters down the product and only encourages even cheaper imitations of successful mediocrity. The networks sidestep the larger issue and point to the latest ratings for their "News Magazine" shows as filling their duty to inform and enlighten the viewing public.

The broadcast media has demonstrated an ability to create a market where common sense would dictate none exist. Was the O.J. trial worthy of the massive media effort devoted to it? Did that market exist or was it created, nurtured and exploited? The network's "experts" painstakingly educated on the finer nuances of criminal law. They held our hand and walked us through each phase of the process. They found a new breed of on-air personality who could convey the essential aspects of jury selection, evidence, testimony and mundane court procedures without boring an audience. They built their audience viewer by viewer, de-mystifying complex procedures with friendly banter in layman's terms, providing simplification that put understanding within anyone's reach. They told us that this was an important event and pointed at the huge crowds as proof. As the cameras panned the crowd, they failed to point out that most of them had cameras and microphones as well. It was the ultimate media event.

I still believe there would be, not only a market for, but a long term benefit from placing a much larger emphasis on the day to day operation of our governmental business. Granted, there are the Sunday Morning shows making stabs at this, but these shows are competing with God and the time demands of family for the viewing audience. They operate under the assumption that their audience is already familiar with the schedule, the rules and the players and make no allowances for the politically challenged. The result is a subtle arrogance that they know something we don't, and never will.

Voting, and the larger political structure it enables, will continue to be a multiple-choice guessing game in which the results will continue to disappoint. Our elections are being decided by a shrinking percentage of the public for a variety of reasons. The truth is that we don't know why people are abandoning the election process. The polling data is unclear whether the electorate has turned away because they don't like, understand or give a damn about, the choices being offered or whether they feel that elections aren't worth it because they seem to change nothing. What is left is a hodgepodge of voters, many of whom are voting against rather than for a candidate or initiative. Why should we bother to seek out information and make an informed decision, when we can just turn on Hard Copy or the six o'clock news and see that, as a society, we're going to hell in a handbasket?

We know the nominees for the upcoming Academy awards, we're excited that the Bulls are making a run at history, that Ryne Sandberg has returned to the Cubs, and we can also be pretty sure that the next Jerry Springer show will provide another glimpse into the shallow end of the gene pool. We feel our streets are unsafe, that our lives and property are in constant jeopardy but that, individually, there isn't much that we can do about it. We are told what has already happened, without a glimmer of information about what our absence has contributed to the situation. We are vaguely aware that there is a primary election next Tuesday to be followed by the big popularity poll in November. Where this ranks on our collective want-to-do list would seem to be somewhere below a trip to the dentist for a root canal or filing income taxes when we won't be getting a refund.

With less than a week to go before the primary, it's unlikely that I can persuade you to check out the candidates and make your vote count. Therefore, I will only encourage you to exercise your guess. At this point, an arbitrary candidate selected by a majority of the voters is more attractive than one who has done the math and worked to get no more than the projections indicated were needed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nah, it's different now.