No Conflict, No Story
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.’”
And why is the pundit walking through airports? Most likely on his or her way to collect hefty speaking fees in the American outback, or to sign books likely never to have been written or published but for the author’s TV appearances. You started out covering municipal sewer and water commission meetings, and now you’re a star!
Having done just enough of this kind of thing to understand how it works, I’d add a secondary but very real danger. Going on TV can very time-consuming and energy-absorbing. Between the time spent in limos and makeup rooms, not to mention dealing with the secondary effects of newfound celebrity, there’s not much time left to do much real work.
So pundits start coasting, gradually drawing down their stock of genuine expertise—such as it is. Next comes faking. On camera, some talking head asks the journalist to opine about a topic that, strictly speaking, he knows bugger-all about. Instead of saying so, our hero cleverly paraphrases something he heard some other savant say on a different channel.
Remember during the campaign when Mitt Romney made a fool of himself explaining how Syria was Iran’s route to the sea? (Iran has its own seacoast and no border with Syria.) I’d bet he’d heard that from some other big bluffer pretending to be worldly wise on cable TV.
Almost needless to say, if the potentially corrupting effects of TV celebrity can be bad for journalists, they’re even worse for politicians. Under the best of circumstances, there’s hardly enough available attention and acclaim from sea to shining sea to satisfy the average United States congressman. Add the ego-inflating thrill of being on a first-name basis with Bill O’Reilly or Erin Burnett, and what dramatic poses wouldn’t a previously obscure pol from Utah or South Carolina strike to get on TV?
So heighten the contradictions. Ramp up the conflict. The Fiscal Cliff! OMG! It’s not a budget debate, it’s good vs. evil! Civilization hangs in the balance!
Except, no it doesn’t. It’s a budget fight that President Obama wins.
He’s holding all the high cards; Republicans are playing a weak hand badly, and people are getting really fed up with the fake hysteria.
Photo credit: AP/Paul Sancya