Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Results for 'Mad as Hell' Politics

Okay, I’ve got a confession to make…you know how this blog popped up a few days after the election?  That wasn’t a coincidence.  I purposefully decided to start it AFTER last Tuesday.  While I, like hopefully most Americans, had an opinion on the election, I figured the last thing you would want to read was another political pundit throwing in his two cents.  With that said, we are one week out and I cannot help but give at least a single, brief thought on the election before it becomes too passé to even mention.

Last week was a rude realization for many in this country.  We realized that, more than ever, our culture has become what Paddy Chayefsky predicted over 30 years ago…a nation “informed” and insulated by infotainment media bubbles filled with hot air.  The biggest of which popped on election night like it was the Hindenburg.

Politico ran an excellent piece yesterday about the “GOP’s media cocoon.”  Written somewhat defiantly against criticisms of their reports on the president’s lead in the polls as being biased, the article chronicled how stunned the right was that President Barack Obama was not only reelected, but that he carried over 330 electoral college votes.  It was so surprising, Governor Mitt Romney was reportedly “shellshocked” after he lost an election that he didn’t have a concession speech prepared for.  But can you really blame him?  For months, if not years, the rightwing punditocracy from Fox News on up to the conservative intelligentsia of George Will and Charles Krauthammer have reported how awful Obama is and were predicting a landslide.  I mean even Dick Morris said so!

“What Republicans did so successfully, starting with critiquing the media and then creating our own outlets, became a bubble onto itself,” conservative columnist Ross Douthat told Politico.  Lifelong think tanker Ben Domenech took it a step further, “The right is suffering from an era of on-demand reality.  We have become what the left was in the ‘70s—insular.”  Indeed, it was so unbelievable that Republican mastermind Karl Rove was in utter denial on Fox News and challenged the electoral reality with all of America watching.  Woe is the man who took $300 million by promising the world on cable news and delivered but one Senate seat.

Yet, none of this should be surprising.  For over a decade conservative media has become increasingly withdrawn into its own rhetoric to the point where they did not only dislike the perceived liberal bias in the "mainstream media,” but rejected almost all information reported in it.  A month out from this election, there was a firestorm on talk radio, Fox News and other media outlets about refuting professional polls simply because they showed Romney was trailing Obama’s numbers.  This happens when a culture cultivates its own facts.  This blog is not an indictment of conservative ideology, but an observation that one cannot simply will their desires and opinions into reality by saying them angrily and repetitiously enough.

At the beginning of the Obama presidency, Fox’s biggest rising star was radio host Glenn Beck.  He built his brand on one of outrage and paranoid innuendo.  More than once, he proudly announced his kinship with Peter Finch’s Oscar-winning character, Howard Beale, as seen in the clip at the top of this blog. “I’m mad as Hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” was Beale’s slogan and supposed philosophy in the movie, Network.  “That’s the way I feel,” Beck said.  In 2009, Frank Luntz, pollster and icon of Fox News and the conservative blogosphere, surveyed some 6,400 Americans and found that when asked, nearly 72 percent of participants agreed with the Beale catchphrase.  It practically became a mantra of the right going into the 2010 midterms and now the 2012 general election.

The lost irony is that the quote from Chayefsky’s screenplay is entirely empty, meaningless and satirical.  Even as Beale is screaming it, he admits he has no idea how to solve any problems, but he wants to create a populist rage anyway.  While he gets his viewers to scream into a literal thunderstorm of cacophony, Faye Dunaway’s opportunistic TV producer is already calculating how to market, patent and merchandise the line.  As the movie progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Beale is suffering from a mental breakdown and has no clue what he's talking about.  But he becomes the star of his network and the hard-edged nightly news broadcast in the mold of Cronkite that he once anchored is thrown away for little more than a game show.

Chayefsky and director Sidney Lumet created a pitch-black comedy and prophecy of where our media in the age of infotainment was headed.  A few decades later, with the advent of cable news, we saw media personalities like Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Keith Olbermann rise to prominence as popular entertainers.  The product they sold?  Mighty, righteous anger at those who disagreed.  More recently, shock jocks from radio and Internet blogs have become increasingly louder in our discourse to the point where one blogger unscientifically estimated conservative numbers on top of “biased” polls that showed favorable statistics for Obama and was reported as a viable resource by other conservative media personalities.

This circular vacuum has become incredibly destructive for the Republican Party that many of these opinionaters purport to defend.  As it turns out, what is good for ratings is not necessarily good for political gain and the snake is consuming itself.  Creating a safe, nurturing environment that coddles aggrieved, likeminded viewers with only the conservative worldview left half the country stunned when a president who has been compared to Hitler, Stalin and Vlad the Impaler (Dracula) on Fox News was reelected.  Fox’s Standard-Bearer, Bill O’Reilly, choked up as he realized on election night that this was the end of the “white establishment.”  He said this as if it was surprising that soon whites won’t be the nation’s majority to a plurality of minorities and that 20th century social wedge issues are now harmful to the Republican brand!

At the end of Network, Beale’s ratings begin to slip because he starts preaching corporate nihilism as handed down to him by the network’s chairman (and the face of God).  Thus, the network quietly decides to literally terminate Beale in an assassination/publicity stunt and replace him with a new talking head.  While Beck’s exit from Fox News was not nearly as violent, the network’s tone and message hardly changed after his dismissal.  And this week, Rove, Morris, Grover Norquist and all the rest are still reeling from the fact that half the country doesn’t see what they’ve been telling themselves ad nauseum for four years.  To quote Edward R. Murrow from the 1958 RTNDA Convention:

We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information.  Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.

Much of the right, as well as the nation as a whole, should have understood this over the last week.  Murrow spoke of television and radio, but it is only more true in the age of cable, Twitter and, yes, blogs.  When you pick your news and facts, the real ones are going to hit you harder than an angry donor who gave you millions for a Romney victory.  Hopefully, those who would be opinion leaders for half the voting public will accept this soon.

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