Monday, June 16, 2014

Politics 2014: That's Entertainment!

The title of this blog post is taken from my old professor, Terry Moran's influential article published in ETC: A Review of General Semantics some thirty years ago, entitled "Politics 1984: That's Entertainment," which Neil Postman drew upon in his best known book, Amusing Ourselves to Death.  And as you know (or at least I hope you know), I've written a bit of a follow-up entitled Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman's Brave New World Revisited. And if you don't have your copy, you can order it right now through Amazon via that little box over on the right.

But a few weeks before the books was actually published, I received a request from Sarah Musooli, a producer for Bloomberg TV's Street Smart with Trish Regan and Adam Johnson program, asking if I'd come by the studio to talk about the blurred line between celebrities and politicians. This was in conjunction with comedian Jimmy Fallon taking over as host of the Tonight Show, and having First Lady Michelle Obama as one of his guests. It was an offer I couldn't refuse.

The segment was supposed to be 7 minutes long, which I understand is an eternity in the television medium's peculiar relation to time (it's the kind of time I have referred to as quicktime in my essay "Cybertime" in my co-edited anthology, Communication and Cyberspace: Social Interaction in an Electronic Environment, first edition published in 1996, 2nd in 2003, the essay is in both, and the 2nd edition can be ordered from one of the boxes on the right). But, as should be apparent to any sane, let alone reasonable person, it's not very long at all to discuss a complex and significant issue. So, of course, the previous segment went long and ours got cut down to only a couple of minutes. But hey, that's show biz!

Before showing you my segment, let's take a look once again (or for the first time if you missed it) at Michelle Obama's appearance on The Tonight Show on Thursday night,  February 20th, which started with this skit:

Now here's the sit down portion, where they get serious, sort of:

So that was Thursday night, and my interview was scheduled for the next day, Friday February 21st, at 4:20 PM. This clip cuts off the very beginning and end of the segment, but for what it's worth, here it is:

As I noted, the clip cuts off the last little bit (you can also see the same clip here), during which we continued to talk, the anchors said they had to go to commercial and gave the impression that we would continue after the break, but during the break someone decided to move on to the next topic, and so it all ended rather abruptly. It was shades of And Now This! (and Postman's Daily Show interview by Rob Corddry). I heard from a few folks  who were watching the program live that they were surprised when they came back from the commercial break and immediately went on to some other story. But of course one of the characteristics of the television medium is its bias towards discontinuous content, in contrast to writing and print's bias towards linearity. And that is one of the main reasons why television is a poor medium for serious public discourse, but well-suited to entertainment and amusement.

If I had more time to talk, and think, in discussing the issue, I'd emphasize how this general trend of blurring the line between politics and celebrities has more than a little to do with the severe loss of respect for our political leaders, and the terrible lack of civility in politics today. We seem to have lost the idea of respecting the office, even if you disagree with the particular individual inhabiting it at the moment and the policies involved. Whatever other reasons there are for the political polarization that we've been experiencing in American political culture, the inability to engage in constructive debate, and especially negotiation, the inability to find any common ground whatsoever, is related, at least in part, to the lowering of political leaders down to the level of celebrity entertainers, individuals we feel entirely free to boo, disregard, and change the channel on.

In the case of the First Lady's appearance with Fallon, her justification for coming on the show is to talk about health and healthcare, so notice how that important and very serious message gets lost in all the focus on comedy and personality. 

I'd also note how, finally, how in this case, vital political discourse is reduced down to one word:  Eeewww!!!

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