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As the Media Merges with Politics, Can We Resist 'Electotainment'?

by Danny Schechter

What were they thinking? Did the Democrats who decided to extend the campaign season with a year of frenetic barnstorming really believe that would turn more people on to politics or was it just another fundraising gambit?

As the race drones on, as the mainstream turns into a mud-stream, cynicism and tune-out deepen. It's a reaction to what Time Magazine's once called, "electotainment," an ongoing televised carnival in an age of hyper partisanship, in which the corrosive spirit of polarization between Democrats and Republicans has now led the Dems to polarize themselves.

The ONION caught the vibe with a headline: "AMERICANS ANNOUNCE THEY'RE DROPPING OUT OF PRESIDENTIAL RACE." Among the factors these satirists hone in on is a lack of stamina for an l8-month marathon horse race and exhaustion with "relentless media scrutiny."

I would modify that to "tired of self-promotional media exploitation" and anchor-pimping/corporate news brand-building with staged events that do little to engage us with real choices and issues but instead provide on-air "talent" with another chance to show how much smarter they are than everyone else. Marshall McLuhan thought everyone craved fifteen seconds of fame. Many newscasters are face-time on TV hogs. They need fifteen seconds of fame every fifteen seconds.

The most recent case in point-CNN's "debate" from Las Vegas, a town known for prizefights and gambling. David Swanson was right to call it a "soul-sickening disaster."

He watched it while watching a clock:

On Thursday Wolf Blitzer devoted the first 20 minutes to goading Clinton and Obama into bashing each other over how they have run their campaigns. Edwards was given a token 60 seconds to join the fight. At 8:18 (the debate began at 8:00 p.m. ET) Biden was permitted to add his two cents. At 8:20, Edwards was asked to bash Clinton from another angle. He took the bait, but then turned to the topic of poverty, in open violation of WB's rules. (Blitzer had announced at the start that candidates would not be permitted to stray from the topics of the questions asked.) At 8:23 Dodd got to speak, still on the debate over the debate. At 8:24 Richardson was allowed to add to the same substance-free topic. He introduced himself to the crowd as a way of registering his dissastisfaction with being ignored for 24 minutes.

Adds Swanson: "... time was found for an audience member to ask Clinton whether she "prefers diamonds or pearls."

(PS. Later we learned from Maria Luisa, the UNLV student who asked Hillary Clinton whether she preferred "diamonds or pearls," that CNN forced her to ask the frilly question instead of a pre-approved query about the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.

"Every single question asked during the debate by the audience had to be approved by CNN," Luisa writes. "I was asked to submit questions including "lighthearted/fun" questions. I submitted more than five questions on issues important to me. I did a policy memo on Yucca Mountain a year ago and was the finalist for the Truman Scholarship. For sure, I thought I would get to ask the Yucca question that was approved by CNN days in advance.")

She wasn't. CNN wouldn't let her, insisting on the trivial to the important.

Swanson concludes: "Wolf Blitzer lost this one. The ranks of non-voters probably won."

You bet, but maybe that's the real goal. Ever think of that? Make politics so tendentious and predictable that issues really don't matter. Focus on posturing and being clever instead or what matters. The pundits say that the candidate that wins is the one that makes the fewest mistakes. Is that the way we should chose a president?

Anyone notice what's not being debated---our economic collapse, the subprime meltdown, the crimes of Wall Street, the inflation that is squeezing our lives, the threat of new wars, global warming, infectious diseases etc. etc. ? You know what I am talking about. And one of the reasons is due to another media failure-a lack of scrutiny of the wealthy funders behind the political curtains.

Today, the notion that war is politics by other means, has been inverted: politics is now war. That's why veteran political correspondent Ronald Brownstein calls his new book "The Second Civil War." It argues that extreme partisanship has paralyzed Washington and polarized America. It has led to candidates playing to the certain constituencies while ignoring the needs of millions.

This has been the GOP strategy and it has propelled a minority of zealots into becoming our Republican Guard. They are also media whores, always in the media and on the media. (Karl Rove just joined Newsweek as a columnist while partisan soundbite artists on all sides dominate the punditocracy.) Extremists on the right are everywhere; progressives rarely heard or seen. MoveOn gets in the news when the right choses to target them, not because what they do merits media visibility. That's why they have to buy pricey ads to get heard.

When we talk about media mergers, we rarely discuss the merger between big media and big politics!

The truth is that news business is now show business and that politics dances to its rules. TV news used to model its programming on what newspapers reported. Now fewer Americans even read newspapers and the press often follows TV's lead because of its fetishism with immediacy. New media outlets like My Space and You Tube further glitz up the process while the Daily Show and its imitators give young people more to laugh about than think about.

That means that personalties rule and information is sloganized, dumbed down and robbed of substance. It means more "message points" on the right and rhetoric on the left. No wonder so many Americans don't even bother voting.

Formalistic debates and related blather on the Sunday shows now substitute for the work of the political parties which are no longer mass-based bottom-up grass roots organizations. TV is our politics. (Roseanne once called it "our everything.") Candidate strategies are built around waging expensive "airwars" in contested states; they fight with TV ads, not house parties and real field organizing. It is easier to "participate" by sending in checks or signing petitions on line. Low-key passivity is then redefined as activism.

Look at the conventions. The delegates are increasingly elected officials and political pros. These events are now considered ho-hummers with the media barely covering them anymore allegedly because they are designed as formulaic TV shows. That same media doesn't admit that they are the ones pushing for the high entertainment and production values. The pols are just imitating them by hiring media consultants. It's a symbiotic game. Remember that most of TV is driven by so-called KISS formulas-Keep it simple and stupid.

And also look at the electoral process itself. The Daily News fears NY State will become another Florida because of federal pressure to force us to use electronic voting machines. Can the media that failed to focus in on what happened in 2000 until it was too late, and then ignored massive violations in Ohio in 2004 be trusted to monitor the integrity of the elections in 2008? Don't count on it.

So where does that leave us? Angry and worried. Meanwhile many of the most concerned about our democracy become resigned to being observers not doers, moving from event to event, caucus to primary, watered down TV "debate" to "debate" watching the pols become slicker showboaters as our political culture becomes more remote. Can't we do better?

Our politicians are turning into brands to chose between in the great mall of electronic "democracy." Unfortunately, you can't return them or upgrade later.

Mediachannel.org's News Dissector Danny Schechter's new book Squeezed on the financial crisis is now available on Coldtype.net. Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org

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