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Friday, September 24, 2010

THE POLITICS OF ENTERTAINMENT AND THE ENTERTAINMENT OF POLITICS

Democratic political systems work best when the citizens are at least partially informed about the issues which stimulate public policy. For decades this duty fell to newspapers and then to television network news. Long gone are Huntley-Brinkley, Cronkite, and Severeid, serious and respected journalists all. The job of informing the public is now being taken over by 24/7 cable news. This has the advantage of instant access but the disadvantage of often being info/entertainment as chatty news couples laugh, play and emote as they read teleprompters. The 24 hr. requirements ensure that most of what they report is of little consequence i.e. the daily Los Angeles police car chase; crime in Oshkosh and the latest legal problems of celebrities. More seriously, cable news channels are becoming more and more ideological commentary/advocacy outlets as the programming of Fox News and MSNBC make obvious. “News” is still available on these and other cable channels but commentary shows dominate the coverage and distort the information process with ideologically based bias and distortion from both the Left and the Right.

With the ascension of the internet, sources of issue important news are essentially infinite and at the same time flawed as the proliferation of anonymous and fraudulent “send this to everyone you know” e-mails indicates. The underlying factor making such “sources” effective is simply the enormous reach which cable and the internet provide. Tens of millions of individuals can be reached instantly ensuring that hundreds of thousands if not additional millions will accept whatever the message without much thought to the contrary. This mass marketing factor is being further exploited by celebrities who feel that their status, wealth and the absurd devotion of their fans must mean that they are capable and thoughtful public policy analysts whose personal opinions provide the real answers.

Political activism by celebrities is nothing new. Hollywood stars on the Left and Right, but mostly on the Left, have used their popularity as actors to try to influence the public at large on issues unrelated to their profession, and in most cases to any perceived special knowledge or expertise on their parts. From Jane Fonda’s controversial trip to North Vietnam in 1972 to Rosie O’Donnell’s persistent inanity, “stars” have attempted to generate support and give credibility to public policy issues.

Up in Portland, Maine we had the recent spectacle of an even more absurd celebrity seeking to influence a debate in the U.S. Senate based on nothing more than the childlike hysteria afforded to pop music stars. Lady Gaga, for whom most sane people stimulates the “gaga reflex” and for whom every day is Halloween, held forth at yet another “rally”. Gaga’s “talent” is best described, and perhaps limited to, outrageously nutty costumes, make-up, and hair styles; she recently wore a dress made of raw meat to the MTV Awards. While a hit with the area’s stray dogs, there still hasn’t been a run on local butcher shops by fad crazed teenagers but who knows. Gaga nonetheless has a devoted following among the young and perpetually adolescent. Mistakenly believing that her millions of swooning Face book “friends” must mean that her public policy pronouncements are important, she went to Portland to rally opponents of the Clinton era semi-prohibition against homosexuals serving in the military. Why Portland? Because it is believed that the two lady Republican Senators from Maine are wobbly about supporting the mostly Republican ban which on Tuesday, Sept. 21 came up for a vote by virtue of being attached to the annual Defense Authorization Bill by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Alas, Gaga, who is herself gay, and Reid, fell short on this particular vote as the Senate failed to come up with a filibuster proof sixty vote majority. The two Maine Senators will probably vote for repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” in the final analysis but the continuing trend of public policy being integrated with the entertainment industry which Gaga and O’Donnell represent should be troubling to anyone concerned with what actually comes out of the Congress and is imposed as law on the American public.

Unfortunately, politicians reinforce this tendency, feeling perhaps that they need to show their everyday “just one of you” side. President Obama, who holds few formal press conferences found time to appear on the daytime female chatter fest billed as the “View”, as did probable 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. John McCain thought it important to take time off from campaigning in 2008 to appear on the comedy show Saturday Night Live and unfortunately, a graduate of Saturday Night Live, comedy writer turned far Left failed radio talk show host, Al Franken turned his name identification into a U.S. Senate seat in 2008.

Now we have John Stewart of Comedy Central’s Daily Show morphing into a “serious” political analyst in the minds of some. Stewart is a genuinely funny person but there is nothing in his background that indicates political or public policy expertise. Still, important politicians visit his show and polls show that large numbers of young (18-35) citizens get their news from it (a 2007 Pew Research Center poll put Stewart in fourth place, along with Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Anderson Cooper as “the journalist that Americans most trust.”). Stewart masks his obvious liberal views on a wide variety of important issues by making fun of the “other side”. To his credit he also mocks the more extreme positions of liberal politicians and pundits and he has penetrated the contemporary political debate so far that unfunny political columnists like the N.Y. Times’ Frank Rich, are quoting him as a source.

Now Stewart and his comrade in satire, Steven Colbert of the “Colbert Report” have announced plans for two “rallies” in the nation’s capital, ostensibly to mock the “extremism” of earlier rallies, specifically the Glen Beck “Restoring America” and “Promoting Beck” tent revival and Al Sharpton’s “We’re Still victims and Don‘t You Forget It” celebration of Martin Luther King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech and civil rights rally of 1963.

No one knows as yet who, if any, the guest speakers will be or if indeed the rallies will actually be a comical celebration of “moderation”. One has to wonder if a “rally” of tens of thousands with their signs, banners and mob psychology, is the best venue to promote moderation. What will their signs say; “I sort of like health care reform but. . .”; “Occasional rights for some illegal immigrants”? However, if these rallies do emphasize the absurdity of demagoguery and extremism and do it in a light hearted way then they will be a refreshing change from the current style of political debate. If however, they are simply a mask, like the Daily Show and Colbert Report themselves, for a particular ideological viewpoint, then they will be a continuation of the unfortunate penetration of serious political debate by less than informed celebrities hawking their personal viewpoints.

Stephen Colbert apparently can’t wait for his “mock” rally to afford him a direct entry into politics. He recently testified before the House Judiciary Sub-committee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law on immigration issues. Why? No one knows except that the was invited by Subcommittee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) who apparently thinks illegal immigration is always good for a laugh. Not many individual citizens gain such a privilege; Colbert’s history of expertise on immigration issues? He spent a day working on a corn and vegetable farm in New York State accompanied by immigration advocates. It didn’t go well. Committee members sat in silence as Colbert read a really dumb satirical monologue after being asked to leave by one of the committee’s other Democrats.

And so it goes. Stay tuned for a debate on global warming by Kermit the Frog and Cookie Monster on Sesame Street.

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