September 4, 2019
Sitting in a doctor’s waiting room recently, I couldn’t ignore the TV tuned to a game show. Witnessing the loud tawdriness of it all, I was struck by the possibility that this was part of my doctor’s master plan. Instead of having his patients stand by in a state of low-level anxiety, he was giving us the opportunity to witness even sadder lives – adult human beings making fools of themselves in staged competitions before a national audience at the bidding of profit-driven media corporations and self-absorbed emcees.
My thoughts quickly turned to this summer’s political debates.
The only difference between the two spectacles is the winner of a daytime game show gets a 10-day Caribbean adventure on a disease-infected ship with 5,000 cruise mates, while the winner of the debates might be rewarded with a 4-year cruise in a disease-infected oval office.
It’s been nearly 35 years since the publication of Neil Postman’s landmark book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.” Nothing has changed since Postman first railed against the corporate image-makers who were replacing what passed for news and rational public discourse with visual entertainment. In fact, the situation is far, far worse; and the losers are we the people and democracy itself.
The parallels between the staging of the debates and late-season NFL telecasts are striking. The pre-game hypes are nearly identical, breathlessly dramatizing what’s at stake (CBS: “An entire season and Super Bowl dreams are on the line” and CNN: “Tonight, a fight for the heart of the Democratic party.”) Unable to provide space for a 100-member marching band and a football field-sized American flag for their pre-game spectacle, CNN takes 10 minutes of the time that is so precious that candidates are given a mere 60 seconds to spell out their foreign policy, to march-in, in dramatic silence, a color guard, their every military footstep pounding into the wooden floor and echoing throughout the theater and across the land, standing at attention as a Beyonce-wannabe sings yet another over-stylized national anthem. Unfortunately, CNN couldn’t provide a Stealth bomber flyover. Perhaps next week a CIA drone can hover menacingly over the audience.
The debates are an insult to thoughtful citizens. Without prior warning, candidates were told by the NBC panel to “Raise your hand if your government health plan would provide coverage for undocumented immigrants.” What is this, “Jeopardy”? What if a candidate has (hold your breath) a nuanced position that falls outside a binary option?
The audience is warned repeatedly not to respond with applause. So why are they there? The answer, of course, is to enhance the drama. (Watch the clown on stage at commercial breaks desperately waving his arms to generate applause, an air of excitement and immediacy.) Without sufficient time to present thoroughly developed ideas, candidates are forced to maneuver within a theatrical charade to create their own lightning, their own Lloyd Bentsen moment. “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
Is there a better way? Of course there is, but will we the people stand for it? Will a nation addicted to entertainment be able to jettison its media muscle memory and demand a truly reasonable and adult public conversation? Would a Charlie Rose-like roundtable (sorry for the icky-ness factor) of five candidates, sitting in darkness save for an individual soft spotlight on their faces be exciting enough for a nation raised on high-tech podiums and glossy floors?
I can’t speak for you, but I learned more from Ross Perot sitting behind a desk with his primitive graphs than I have from any staged debate since. His thoughts on unfair NAFTA-like trade deals (“those sucking sounds you hear from Mexico”) were perhaps a bit theatrical, but those graph lines in precipitous decline, drawn from actual facts, gave me plenty to think about.