Ugly and hate-filled
Is America unstoppably careening towards hate and minutia-filled politics as it moves further into the 21st century?
It certainly seems that way. You'd think that, with all the huge issues facing the country, our politics and media coverage would be overwhelmed in a scramble to present substantive stories, serious argument-crammed think pieces, and intelligent TV coverage and policy discussions that could significantly advance a crucial national debate.
But in today's political culture, the way to advance your new or even mainstream media career, or soil the image of another party, partisan or writer, is to be outrageous, over the top, searing, sarcastic or indignant. Or you create an issue by seizing on something small, then blow it up like a political blimp until it becomes a narrative with "legs" that others will jump on, even if it's a non or fabricated issue. The name of the game is getting attention. Who cares how?
All of this has now become so ingrained in our political culture that it brings to mind the title of a Rodgers and Hart song from the 1937 musical "Babes in Arms," called "Johnny One Note." Its opening words: "Johnny could only sing one note and the note he sings was this: Ah!"
Our politics increasingly seems to be mired in two sour notes: the predominance of hate and anger as a political motivational and discussion tool, and the seizing of small events or issues which are then dissected, and peppered with generous dashes of paranoia and hatred. Speculation is packaged as fact or probability when they are often neither. The synthetic event or issue then takes on a life of its own as others want to cover what others have covered -- because others are covering it. Our politics is therefore increasingly easy to manipulate, and our media oftentimes not gatekeepers but partisan rant and negative image-dissemination systems.
A telling moment in our politics came when Bay Buchanan, conservative columnist Pat Buchanan's assertive, articulate and often-vitriolic sister, and a key media spokesperson for Mitt Romney during the GOP's failed presidential campaign, proclaimed that she's fed up with politics -- and is going into real estate. Buchanan was the quintessential TV partisan talking head when she was on the tube; always in a race against time to load answers with as many talking points as humanly possible, and present them with angry, quotable zingers aimed at Democrats and Barack Obama.
The Washington Post notes that after Romney's loss she went for her real estate license. She then said something to the Washington Examiner explaining why she quit being a TV partisan talking head that speaks volumes about our political culture: "I can't just live my life going on TV and being angry all the time."
Who said politics has to always be in an angry tone? But TV in particular needs conflict and emotion. How many times have you seen two partisans angrily going at it on a show, interrupting each other and screaming, then the host says with a smug look: "We'll have to have you back!!"
Meanwhile, a prime example of seizing on minutia and inflating it into a fake controversy until the attention deficit media jumps on it was best seen when Barack Obama mentioned he does skeet shooting. He must be lying, the partisan chorus howled. Then the mainstream media covered it. So Obama released a photo showing him skeet shooting. Partisan bloggers then dissected and questioned the photo. Is the smoke real? Is that really Obama? When was it taken? No way he could wear several changes of clothes in one day. Some conservatives call it -- I'm not kidding, now -- "Skeetgate."
Actually, it's "Hackgate" for those seriously investigating it, or for those wasting a Presidential press briefing demanding more answers on this "issue." Many blame Obama for mentioning skeet shooting: hey, he said something, didn't he, so didn't he expect to be challenged?
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States.