Thursday, June 19, 2008

TV and the campaign season

it's that time again. there's a Democrat and a Republican candidate (well, almost: the conventions haven't been held yet, so it's more like the prewedding dinner than the reception), and with them, the inevitable onslaught of complaints about the media, in particular television. i'm one of those who complains about television, which Newton Minnow would surely say remains largely a vast wasteland. but i also get tired of people acting like television has created the problem of inane political discourse. anyway, the attacks have begun. in this past sunday's Boston Globe is an op-ed piece by Rick Shenkman called "the dumbing down of voters."

It's an odd and contradictory article, since Shenkman insists in the beginning that "politics today is conducted at a lower level than it used to be,'' and then tells us how uninformed the US voters were in the 1940s. We're no better, he says, even though we have a higher level of education than they had 60 years ago. I wouldn't argue with that. He cites sad statistics: only two in ten americans know we have 100 senators; only a third know Congress has the power to declare war, and a slew of equally dispiriting findings. He gives several reasons for this--the "collapse of the traditional two-party system" (i didn't realize it had collapsed--does this mean we'll have a Socialist or Libertarian president next year?); and the collapse of unions.

but the real villain, is, inevitably, television. "once television replaced newspapers as the chief source of news, this happened around 1965, shallowness was inescapable as americans began judging politicians by how they looked and acted." earlier, he had opined that "Not many voted against william howard taft because he was fat or abraham lincoln because he was thin. One can't imagine franklin roosevelt being judged by how badly he bowled or how convincingly he knocked back a tumble of scotch.''

Maybe not. but roosevelt himself cared enough about image to make certain that he was never seen, let alone photographed, in public in his wheelchair. that, supposedly, would show him as a 'weak man.' indeed roosevelt famously told orson welles that they were the two best actors in america.

nor did it start there. the media--whichever media there were at a given time--have always reported shallowly when the politicians gave them the chance. And the politicians usually did. in the early 1840s, william henry harrison ran against incumbent martin van buren, using the now famous ditty based on harrison's army triumphs 20 years earlier in the battle of tippicanoe, and on van buren's height ('he's a little man'). van buren answered with a ditty from his own supporters, which if less famous was equally fatuous.

television did indeed jump into the fray in the very beginning. who can forget the sight of richard nixon earnestly explaining to the camera that the democrats wanted to take away his children's puppy, the adorable little Checkers? and yes, the public bought it.

and in the same era, television also brought us edward r. murrow.

it's always like that.

so today, we get soundbites, and anemic "debates." we'll hear for weeks and weeks about obama's alleged connections to islamic terrorists and to che guevara. once the conventions are over, we'll hear equally unsubstantiated but entertaining reports about mccain. we'll know more about both candidates' wives than most of us ever want to.

but that isn't all we'll get. we'll channel surf and find bill moyers on pbs, examining issues closely and seriously, as we have done at least since watergate.
this past week, the nation has been stunned by the loss of a tv commentator whose committment to full, honest exploration of american politics was palpable. tim russert was beloved for a reason. he was a popular host on a major network tv show he made popular, even in its sunday morning time slot. he gave us content and context, with intelligence and civility. his death was a shock in part because he was fairly young (58), energetic, and apparently healthy. but it was also because he was a fixture in american political reporting, and it's hard to imagine the upcoming election without him. that his colleagues and friends mourn him is moving, but inevitable. that his loss affects so many average americans says volumes about what television can, and often does, do. that it doesn't do it enough is true. but just as its drivel is symptomatic of our public, so is its occasional depth. we are no better or worse than any other generation. television is no better or worse than any of the media that preceded it--from the 'bread and circuses' of the ancient romans through the elaborate pageantry of the Tudor monarchs' "progresses," through tippicanoe and tyler too, through FDR's make-believe walk, through poor little checkers, and beyond and probably before.

there will never be another tim russert, as there has never been another edward r. murrow. but there are and will be good television reporters and analysts, and stations that now and again give them a place to be heard.

it's up to us to listen.

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