Friday, March 7, 2008

...Because You're Hurting America

In this election cycle I've found myself watching WAY too much MSNBC and CNN. As a graduate student, a husband, and the father of a small child I've been pleasantly preoccupied with actual life for the past 4 or 5 years and generally avoided television in favor of books and the internet, when the need for an electronic media fix arose. There are still moments when I'm happy to sit in front of the television and enjoy some frivolous entertainment. I like to watch sports and old sitcoms. I've attached myself to the news networks to follow the election process. The sports and old sitcoms work for me. The news networks....not so much.

Here's the thing. Since I gave up watching television more or less, I increasingly turned to various online news sources and a handful of newspapers and periodicals for my news. Coming back to television, I remember all the reasons that I left in the first place. I find myself unusually stressed out by the coverage of the primaries and it occurs to me that the biggest part of that stress is the volatile, self-serving, vindictive punditry that prefers to make news via speculation, in fighting, partisanship, and distortion than to cover it. These people of various ideologies and loyalties spout opinionated spin for hours at a time while talking heads like Lou Dobbs, Chris Matthews, Tim Russert, Wolf Blitzer, and others egg them on and lick their salivating lips at the prospect of making themselves look authoritative and in the know. It the ultimate exercise in self-aggrandizing egomania and it extends from the anchor desks to the punditry to the people behind the scenes. You can forget the Rush Limbaughs and Bill O'Reillys of the world, the networks are now in the game and they are twice as loud and omnipresent.

Notice that I excluded the names of Keith Olbermann and Anderson Cooper from the earlier group. It's not that they don't belong in that group, but there's a kernel of something I like in each of them. Cooper seems more humble than the flock. He does a lot of CNN fluff nonsense and tows the company line, but I get the sense that there's something real going on underneath the facade. He seems bothered by the criticisms of CNN reporting and the sensationalism of the news cycle. He doesn't stand up against it, but at least he seems to take the criticisms personally. Olbermann is a hyperactive partisan for the Progressive wing of the Democratic Party. He's blatantly anti-Hillary and he's vehemently anti-Bush. He wears his opinions on his sleeve and pulls no punches. I don't think his brand of vitriol is good for America, but to be dirty little pleasure is to watch him harpoon the people I don't like. I let him off the hook because we share the same ideology and because....well.....F them anyway. Progressives are tired of being the punching bags for the lunatic fringe of the Right wing and his rants are a sort of catharsis.

If I had my way, however, there would be no discourse of its kind on major network news. I'd gladly trade in my guilty pleasure, watching Olbermann, to do away with Matthews, Dobbs, Limbaugh, O'Reilly, and the rest. It hurts America. Just my opinion. This post serves a dual purpose. First, I want to point to one of the most poignant moments on national television in modern history (as far as I'm concerned) and second I'd like to offer a contrast and lead you to something that needs your support.

Paul Begala was a key figure in the campaign to elect Bill Clinton to the presidency. He was half of the political consulting team of Begala and Carville. Of course, anyone who's paid attention to national politics over the last 15+ years knows James Carville as the loud-mouthed cajun with a knack for framing things in a way that just "makes sense." I have a great deal of affection for James Carville as a Democrat who came of political age during the 1992 election. The documentary "War Room" is a classic political inside look at campaigning and the election process. Begala, on the other hand, has always struck me as the kid in class who slightly embellished everything to prove how clever has was, how important. He clearly has issues of some kind with confidence as is apparent in his nervous, twitchy, rapid fire speech pattern that is often punctuated by nervous laughter and quick glances at the people around, as if to confirm that he's said something clever or interesting. That's my amateur psychology at work, anyway.

The clip I'm about to post features Begala and Tucker Carlson hosting the CNN program Crossfire. Tucker Carlson is a privileged boy who never finished his university education. He used to wear a ridiculous bow tie as some sort of attempt to live up to the Ivy League/Young Republican image that would give him entry to the William F. Buckley branch of conservatism. I believe he named one of his children "Buckley" as a matter of fact. He's the boy in class that always took a snooty, better than you attitude as long as the teacher was around to prevent a bloody ass-whooping. The pairing of Begala and Carlson eventually led to the end of Crossfire, I believe as a result of the following clip (although John Stewart has repeatedly denied playing any direct role in the cancellation). Enjoy. It's rather long at 14+ minutes, but as I said it's one of the great moments in modern television and worth every second:

Thanks for your patience with the first part of this post. The following is a ringing endorsement for a different sort of journalism that is both desperately needed and perilously in danger. Tonight I sat down to watch the Bill Moyers Journal on PBS. The topic was the McCain campaign and conservatism in America. Moyers is a veteran newsman of the highest standing and a real American hero in the face of the dumbing down of our national discourse. He's clearly a liberal politically, but he converses with conservatives with the comfort and ease of a true statesman. He's an intellectual, persistently fair, and invites the sort of guests of all ideological persuasion that uphold his own respectable example. The discourse is genuine, balanced in the truest sense of the word, and somehow manages to transcend the fray of sensationalism that television as a medium seems to love so much.

Moyers and the PBS family need money to continue providing the last surviving forum of decent journalism on television. It's up to you whether you value this service or not, but I hope you'll at least think about supporting them with a few extra dollars if you have them. Think of the contrast between the clip featured above and the following video aired recently about Congressional earmarks and maybe it will help you make up your mind. Follow the link to Moyers program on the internet and continue to look in on his work to get some decent news from time to time.

1 comment:

Matt C said...

I think you hit it right on the head - television political commentary seems to be getting worse and worse. And I also agree with you on Anderson and Olbermann, especially Olbermann, since I don't think he tries to hide his bias, which makes it easier for me to deal with, for some reason. The ones who act like bigots and try to pretend they're objective reporters drive me nuts. If you have an opinion, go for it - but don't try to tell me you don't have an agenda.

Keep it up!