As yet another make-believe Washington “crisis” looms, it’s tempting to suspect that the most fraught interludes in American politics derive from turning government into a TV show. Artificial deadlines, imaginary cliffs, villains and heroes; a state of permanent emergency. These well-worn dramatic devices have been the stuff of serial melodrama from the “Perils of Pauline” through “24.”
No sooner had the 2012 presidential election blessedly ended than journalists started handicapping the 2016 presidential election overnight.
Next, new crisis was declared. OMG! The Fiscal Cliff! OMG!
Without a conflict, see, there’s no story.
So must we therefore govern the country according to the narrative conventions of spy thrillers to boost cable news network ratings and to insure pundits and politicians plenty of TV face time?
Apparently so. However, is it really good for our democracy that many otherwise normal Americans recognize figures like Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) or Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) on sight? To put it another way, if I weren’t a subscriber to the NBA League Pass, would I too stand in danger of turning into a “fiscal cliff” junkie between now and January 2—feverishly flipping from MSNBC to Fox seeking fresh excitement and outrage?
In his 1997 book Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, James Fallows explained a lot about what drives such coverage. “Why do [journalists] want to appear [on TV], when so many reporters make fun of the shows?” he asked. “The most immediate payoff is the simple thrill of being noticed and known. Political-journalistic Washington functions much like a big high school, with cliques of the popular kids, the nerds, the rebels, the left-outs, and so on. To be on TV is to become very quickly a cool kid. Friends call to say they’ve seen you. People recognize you in stores. Whether people agree or disagree with what you said (or whether they even remember), they treat you as ‘realer’ and bigger than you were before.”
And that was back when 24/7 cable TV political programming barely existed. Since then, print reporters have quit dismissing TV. (Most were only pretending to be snobs about it anyway.) Now they ponder how to become the next Ezra Klein.
The rewards, Fallows made clear, can be heady. Celebrity journalists, “have that extra, sizzling experience of seeing strangers’ heads flip back, for a second look (‘Is it really him?’) as they walk into restaurants or through airport corridors… [T]he recognition is almost entirely judgment-free…TV’s effect is mainly to make you bigger than life. For each hundred acquaintances who will say, ‘I saw you on the show,’ only one will say, ‘I agree [or disagree] with what you said.’”