November 13, 2006
Politics is a Game of Two Halves
Matt Taibbi makes a point about the news coverage of elections:
With each passing election season the format for political coverage on TV morphs even further in the direction of sportscasting. Most of the networks on this election night quite baldly copied the NFL Countdown format... and the general topics of discussion -- who would win the big game, whose prospects for next year were better, which coaches needed to be fired, what halftime adjustments needed to be made -- were virtually indistinguishable from the real football shows...Or perhaps I should say "reiterates". 'S OK, it bears repeating.
Any reporter worth his AFTRA card can see that this is the same job, that there is absolutely no difference between pointing out that Indy has a soft second-half run defense and that the Knoxville and Nashville precincts, if they come in late, will come in hard for Harold Ford.
The thing that people should be concerned about isn't that the news networks are choosing to cover politics like a football game. It's the idea that both televised football games and televised politics might represent some idealized form of commercial television drama that both sports and politics evolved in the direction of organically, under the constant financial pressure brought to bear by TV advertisers. Both politics and sports turned into this shit because this format happens to sell the most Cheerios, regardless of what the content is. If you work backward from that premise, and start thinking about what the consequences of that phenomenon might actually be, your head can easily explode.
There were really only a few genuinely interesting things that happened on this election night, but all of them were blown off by the TV goons because they didn't fit into the winning-and-losing sports narrative. The Sanders win was one story, but another very interesting one was the Kent Conrad/Dwight Grotberg Senate race in North Dakota. This one was never in doubt, as Conrad completely wiped out Grotberg, but what was interesting was that both candidates agreed not to run negative campaigns and went to great pains to comport themselves like gentlemen in their public appearances. In a world where social responsibility actually played a role in editorial decision-making both candidates would have been extolled at length on the networks and celebrated for their positive contributions to the political atmosphere -- but given what a catastrophe a return to dignified campaigning would be for the TV news business, it's not at all surprising that these guys didn't even get their own blurb in the CNN baseline crawl.
McCain appears on CNN, broadcasting live from his Arizona office. He's got American flags on either side of him and you can almost see his boner straining against his pants. His smile is unseemly. He's talking about Republican losses and trying to look sullen, but he's not fooling anyone...
For what it's worth, the dual appearances of McCain and Obama on TV tonight marked the unofficial beginning of the 2008 presidential race...
It's not a coincidence that the early White House hopefuls were all herded on the air the instant the polls closed. Once the last vote is counted, the next story is the next race. All politics has to be contained within the parameters of that who's-winning narrative.
What the Congress actually does, how it actually spends its money, what happens in its committees -- it's all irrelevant, except insofar as that activity bears on the next presidential race. That's why the "experts" on these panels are so unanimous in their belief that the Democrats should lay low for the next two years and not push their subpoena powers. They all think pushing it in Congress would negatively affect the Democrats' White House chances. In other words, it's bad strategy for the next football game, just like Howard Dean's crazy antiwar stance was deemed "too liberal" for the gridiron by the same geniuses a few years ago -- even though history ultimately proved Dean right on that score, for all his other flaws.
Our national political press is narrowly focused, schooled in inch-deep analysis, and completely results-obsessed. It's a huge and expensive mechanism bedecked with every conceivable bell and whistle ... and designed to roam the intellectual range of a chimpanzee. It also has no sense of humor. When the Daily Show spoofed the networks with its "Midterm Midtacular," dragging the venerable Dan Rather out and coaxing a scripted piece of instant "homespun" analysis out of him (he said Hillary Clinton ran away with her race like "a hobo with a sweet potato pie"), the real journalists freaked out. Joe Scarborough led a panel of experts who denounced the show as not that funny; one guest compared Rather's bit to Muhammad Ali's crudely scripted appearances on Diff'rent Strokes, saying it was "awkward."
The reality is that Stewart's array of grotesquely pointless special effects and intentionally buffoonish commentary is an improvement on the real thing, and the real thing is an accurate reflection of our actual politics. Which means, basically, that we're fucked, stuck in an endless cycle of retarded lottery coverage -- 300 million people watching a bunch of half-bright millionaires in ties guess the next number to come out of the chute. I hope we're all insane. Otherwise, what's our excuse?