By Mark Heisler
Our gods must be crazy, too. …
I’ve never written about politics, or covered it, or met a politician, much less interviewed one, which makes me a total amateur, or, as we call it these days, a blogger.
Of course, Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann started out this way, too, and things turned out OK for them.
I think of this as a view from the cheap seats, as in unabashed New York Giant fan Arnold Hano’s book, “A Day in the Bleachers,” with its lyrical description of Willie Mays’ famous over-the-shoulder catch in the 1954 World Series.
“He had turned so quickly and run so fast and truly that he made this impossible catch look—to us in the bleachers—quite ordinary. To those reporters in the press box, nearly six hundred feet from the bleacher wall, it must have appeared far more astonishing, watching Mays run and run until he had become the size of a pigmy, and then he had run some more, while the ball diminished to a mote of white dust and finally disappeared in the dark blob that was Mays’ mitt.”
This is not about my politics, but our politics. Not that it will be startling if I suggest as a voter/reader/viewer that the process has become a joke.
Gridlocked, partisan, mean, cynical ... these aren’t indictments anymore, they’re assumed as a given.
The real question is why anyone still takes the dialogue seriously.
The real issue is whether it’s an anomaly (oh, please let it be an anomaly), something new, or in the colorful tradition of American politics.
With George Will and Arianna Huffington leapfrogging their differences to agree on the Colorful Tradition option, I’d say that represents the consensus.
There’s also a Skewed Narrative School with process-and-media-oriented people like The New York Times’ Frank Rich and Ross Douthat, liberal and conservative, respectively, noting how much the media narrative has pulled away from real life.
As Rich wrote in “The Greatest Story Ever Sold,” his book about the packaging of the invasion of Iraq:
While the controversial choices made by the [George W.] Bush administration are well known, equally important is the way it dramatized its fable. ... The chronicle of how a government told and sold its story is also, inevitably, a chronicle of an American culture that was an all-too-easy mark for the flimflam. ... Only an overheated 24/7 infotainment culture that had trivialized the very idea of reality (and with it, what was once known as “news”) could be so successfully manipulated by those in power.
Or as Douthat wrote in a recent column:
… America really is rife with wild and crazy sentiments. The belief that Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim (apparently held by nearly 20 percent of the country) gets the headlines. But as the George Mason law professor Ilya Somin has noted, national opinion polls reveal support for numerous far-out or noxious-seeming notions. … the 32 percent of Democrats who blame “the Jews” for the financial crisis. ... the 25 percent of African-Americans who believe the AIDS virus was created in a government lab. ...
… The same is true of conservative conspiracy theorists today. Tuning in to Glenn Beck or joining your local Tea Party seems like a woefully insufficient response to the possibility that Barack Obama is a Manchurian candidate groomed from birth to undermine democracy and impose Shariah law. But if we understand those paranoias to be symbolic beliefs, rather than real convictions—an attention-grabbing way of saying, “I consider Obama phony, dishonest and un-American”—then conservative behavior makes a lot more sense.
Such beliefs can still be dangerous. The line between what’s symbolic and what’s real isn’t always clear, and a determined demagogue can exploit symbolic beliefs as well as real ones.
Nor are serving administrators bashful about their ability to shape reality.
In Ron Suskind’s oft-cited interview for his 2004 New York Times magazine story, an unnamed Bush aide—believed to be Karl Rove—told him:
We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
Preening arrogance that it was, it wasn’t bragging if it was fact.
In fact, the reality the Bush administration created—and the press left largely unchallenged—led to our preemptive invasion to locate the WMD that U.N. inspectors, who had been on the ground for months, hadn’t found, because, as it turned out, there weren’t any!
The Skewed Narrative argument isn’t popular among TV pundits, who are charged with doing the skewing, except to allege it’s what their sworn enemies on the other side do.
Not that anyone in this process should like the thought of being a voice on the Tower of Babel, in a world with no Reason, only reasons.
The image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false. It is us through a fun-house mirror and not the good kind that makes you slim and taller but the kind where you have a giant forehead and an ass like a pumpkin and one eyeball.
—Jon Stewart, Oct. 30, 2010
I do know something about the changes in journalism, having seen my job, and the overall product, change so dramatically.
The stuff I cover, sports, is frivolous by definition, but, connecting the dots on the Great Disconnect, you can see the same pattern in all areas of journalism, like business (now a CNBC fiefdom with stars like hottie Maria Bartiromo and folksy Jim Cramer) or the entertainment industry (goodbye motor scooters, hello TMZ and citizen-paparazzi with cell phone cameras).
If the old principles remain and things are pretty much the way they were, now they’re obsessively, hysterically, inescapably so.
Sports journalism is a daily lemmings rush into the sea to pull someone down and raise someone else up, even if they’re replacing each other, like LeBron James, the golden child, who just traded places with Kobe Bryant, the NBA’s most shunned superstar until LeBron did that dumb TV show.
Stardom rules but has a lightning rod quality. Everything runs on two tracks since, in our desperation to quantify the unknowable, we now have approval and disapproval ratings.
Surprise! Superstars run high on both lists, since, no matter how they glow, we always find out they’re only human, or all too human.
So now LeBron, Kobe and Tiger Woods head “most hated” lists, while making tens of millions, endorsing $125 sneakers and costlier golf clubs.
With all media platforms, and the audience participating on handhelds, competing moment by moment on the same Internet, sports writers have little time to think about anything, tweeting 140-character updates of the games they cover, as well as writing stories about them.
As ESPN’s Bill Simmons, the new king of modern media and an unabashed Celtic fan, tweeted from Game 7 of last spring’s NBA Finals:
sportsguy33: Rondo floater… Celts by 11. Timeout Lakers. Crowd in complete and utter shock. I just silently high-fived myself while doing 4 imaginary fist pumps. ...
sportsguy33: Pretty lefty hook by Gasol. crowd now alive. Bos by 8. ...
sportsguy33: BTW, I lost my sense of humor about 30 mins ago. This diary has as many laughs as “My Sister’s Keeper.” ...
sportsguy33: The posts are about to dwindle ... I am devastated. What a giveaway. Blow a 13-point lead in a Game 7??? When the other team’s best player is crapping the bed? They can’t let this happen. ...
sportsguy33: Text from my Dad: “This could be the night that I have the big one.”
sportsguy33: I no longer want to be here. Is this what hell is like?
Of course, it’s only sports writing.
Sports was always about what we wanted to believe, loving our wonderful guys, hating your lowlifes unless they’re traded to our team and go from assholes to members of the family.
In politics, on the other hand, ideas are important, as is the functionality of the process that impacts lives, as opposed to fantasies.
Unfortunately, the nation is dividing into ever-more-irreconcilable niches—like fans of competing teams, rather than members of a greater whole with shared purpose.
The niches are succored, if not created, by media outlets whose primal instinct is keeping their newly won audiences by dramatizing differences with other niches.
Thus came “spokesmen” like Beck, the former “Morning Zoo” deejay at Y95 in Phoenix, and Olbermann, the former ESPN anchor who smirked hugely at his own lines then as now. As George Will said wryly of Beck’s appearance at the 2010 CPAC Convention, “It’s the hour of the entertainer.”
Unfortunately, it might last longer than an hour, like forever.
If our political and cultural issues go back decades or centuries, this institutional component is new, isn’t going anywhere and isn’t inclined toward moderation.
There’s a new name for mainstream media—losers—like CNN, trying to become edgier while remaining unaligned, as its audience slips away to MSNBC and Fox, which offer tailored Weltanschauungen, with alternative approaches to philosophy, history and science.
Pundits still recite that old favorite—You’re entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts—as if it means something. In fact, if Americans once differed, they’re now in alternate universes.
Today’s narrative features a running argument over whether our system tilts right or left. The real bias is against taking any action, since few things turn out as planned, right away or ever, and the center is easily mobilized into joining the other wing in denouncing the initiative.
Tragically, it’s easier to justify foreign adventures, with villains all Americans can agree on, than anything we do domestically. Hence, the era in which repairing roads and bridges is controversial.
Appropriately for an upside-down world, the alarm is sounded loudest on Comedy Central, with Stewart and Stephen Colbert taking their “Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear” to Washington, D.C.
Noted Stewart, with the majestic dome of Our Nation’s Capitol as a backdrop:
“We work together to get things done every damned day! The only place we don’t is here, or on cable TV!”
The narrative is now fixed on the “transformative 2010 election” ... even if it was an off year with turnout down from 130 million to 82.5 million ... and came so hard on the heels of the “transformative 2008 election.”
We seem to get transformed a lot these days, don’t we?
The world doesn’t turn anymore, it spins like a top. Stock market boom-and-bust cycles that took decades have recently occurred within years—and not too many years, with two major bubbles and two meltdowns in little more than a decade.
Happily, whether by traditional forces, or an already skewed narrative exaggerated by an African-American president, we’re headed for a real choice in 2012, presumably between Barack Obama and some Republican who’s at least tea party-friendly.
It may also test the theories on each side of the perception divide.
If our political process is still rational and Sarah Palin runs, she’s a long shot to be nominated over all-out opposition from GOP regulars as hard-core as Karl Rove (“There are high standards that the American people have ... a certain level of gravitas”), who are convinced she’d be DOA in the general election.
If the process is star-driven and blind, Palin would blow the doors off Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, et al.
Whatever’s really going on, the perception remains it’s still the world we know. Palin is at 18.8 on Intrade, to Romney’s 22.7. Discounting the impact of Palin’s new reality T.V. show, Stuart Rothenberg just told USA Today, “She’s a celebrity, a brand and a phenomenon—much bigger than she was as a vice presidential candidate but this isn’t really about politics. It’s about pop culture.”
So, there’s still a difference?
AP / Charlie Litchfield