The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Politics as Show Biz

Posted on | September 26, 2011 | 29 Comments

“Hours before last week’s presidential debate in Orlando, [Fox News] anchors sat in a cavernous back room, hunched over laptops, and plotted how to trap the candidates. Chris Wallace said he would aim squarely at Rick Perry’s weakness: ‘How do you feel about being criticized by some of your rivals as being too soft on illegal immigration? Then I go to Rick Santorum: is Perry too soft?’
“ ‘That’s going to get some fireworks going,’ said managing editor Bill Sammon, grinning.”

Howard Kurtz, “Roger’s Reality Show,” The Daily Beast

About 15 years ago, I read two excellent books by Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, and The Disappearance of Childhood. Postman was a liberal, but his analysis of the ways in which television shape our culture — including politics and education — was praised by many conservatives. When Postman died in 2003, it was an honor for me to be asked to write an obituary feature for the British Guardian:

Postman was a disciple of Marshall McLuhan, who famously declared that “the medium is the message”. He was appalled not so much by the specific content of television as by the very essence of the medium, which he saw as an enemy of literacy and serious thinking. Television, he wrote, “serves us most usefully when presenting junk entertainment; it serves us most ill when it coopts serious modes of discourse — news, politics, science, education, commerce, religion. We would all be better off if television got worse, not better.”

You can read the whole thing. My point in citing Postman today is that if you don’t learn to view television critically — if you don’t attempt to see the ways in which the medium dominates the message — then you will be manipulated without your consent or knowledge.

Postman repeatedly emphasized that we intellectually process the written word in a different way than we process the spoken word or especially the visual imagery of television, which is always a matter of show biz spectacle, for good or ill. People who obtain most of their political information through television will have entirely different beliefs and attitudes than do people who get their information from newspapers, magazines or books — or blogs, for that matter. (Postman also did some prescient debunking of fashionable nonsense about the wonders of the computerized “information revolution,” and if you want to think more deeply about that, I would also recommend The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts.)

Unless you actively seek out knowledge beyond the frame of the mainstream narrative, you are surrendering control to the producers of media — of whom, in some minor sense, I am one. What I have tried to do from time to time, as someone who has spent 25 years in the news business, is to de-mystify the media by explaining what goes on behind the scenes. Hell, I used to edit Bill Sammon’s articles at The Washington Times, which gives me rather an unusual perspective on Sammon’s work as executive editor at Fox News.

Sammon and the other people at Fox obviously understand the show-biz aspect of TV news and they are very good at it. Even when they are “fair and balanced,” the inherent bias of television toward visual spectacle — which is why Sammon grinned at the prospect that Mike Wallace’s question would “get some fireworks going” — shapes the nature of the information you receive.

Think about that. Hit my tip jar. And read more books.

UPDATE: While we’re on the topic of media analysis, here is a phenomenon that puzzles me. Three years ago, I sort of reverse-engineered the Memeorandum algorithm, which was the basis of Rule 3, a bit of knowledge I hope has helped other bloggers. It was via Memeorandum that I found this Kurtz item, but it’s also listed at the affiliated MediaGazer site:

Here’s what puzzles me: My posts are routinely linked at Memeorandum, but when I do media criticism, I’m never linked at MediaGazer. Look at some of the sites they include in the MediaGazer aggregation: Media Matters, HuffPo, Gawker, Mediaite, Washington Monthly, etc. How is it that I rank on Memeorandum with those sites when it comes to political commentary, but I don’t rank with them on MediaGazer?

Readers probably don’t give a damn about this kind of inside-baseball stuff, but in the eternal quest for more traffic, more influence and more money — because there are bills to be paid — shameless capitalism requires me to ponder these things.


29 Responses to “Politics as Show Biz”

  1. Rose
    September 26th, 2011 @ 8:03 pm

    Many of us sensed something ODD in the FOX hosted debates. Now we know why. Talk about being killed by ‘friendly fire.’

    The candidates would do well to learn there is no one you can trust. And the voters – we get to see all candidates destroyed in the name of this blood sport – and so we are stuck, oddly, with a poseur like Obama, who was skirted past the Gladiator pit and presented as a winner.

  2. McGehee
    September 26th, 2011 @ 8:34 pm

    Chris Wallace said he would aim squarely at Rick Perry’s weakness: ‘How do you feel about being criticized by some of your rivals as being too soft on illegal immigration? Then I go to Rick Santorum: is Perry too soft?’

    Santorum could have made serious points by replying thusly: “Why on earth are you asking me a question like that, Chris? I can bash Rick Perry in response to any substantive question — you don’t need to ask me specifically to use what little time I have in this debate to attack a fellow candidate. Just what is it you think you’re doing here?”

  3. Anonymous
    September 26th, 2011 @ 8:46 pm

    Cable TV news thrives on conflict. I remember at the Ames debate last month, how the hosts pushed the Bachmann-Pawlenty conflict so relentlessly that you could be forgiven for not realizing Herman Cain and Rick Santorum were on the stage. I wish they would treat Jon Huntsman so dismissively!

  4. rosalie
    September 26th, 2011 @ 8:54 pm

    I get my news from blogs like this.   I turned to them during the presidential campaign when I wasn’t getting Fox News (now I do)  and I couldn’t take CNN anymore. I very seldom get the news from TV now.     I have a friend who’s a Republican and reads the NYT, Phila. Inquirer and Time Magazine – plus watches the news on TV.  I often know more than she does about what’s going on.  She never even heard of the East Anglia hacking.   What’s really good about blogs too is the fact that we can make a  comment.  It helps to vent.  I wasn’t the least bit interested in politics before O.  I’m learning a lot from reading blogs and from the comments that are made.

  5. TR
    September 26th, 2011 @ 9:26 pm

    I think you report enough gossip and faux skin to at least be on We Smirch? But Media Gazer is more like navel gazer for a real reporter!
    (the other theme song: )

  6. Anonymous
    September 26th, 2011 @ 9:40 pm

    Naive question, I guess, but why would Fox torpedo the leading Repub. candidate and for whose gain???? 

  7. Joe
    September 26th, 2011 @ 9:47 pm

    What Fox is doing is somewhat predictable.  Yeah, they want interaction between the candidates.  They want controversy.  They want interest. 

    And in large part, the viewers do not want a C-Span show, they want to see what makes these candidates tick.  So that lends itself to this too. 

    We might want to stop having a very limited pool of journalists do debates.  Why do we confer this power to the likes of MSNBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox?  Why not pick really principled conservatives to ask the questions?   I am not saying all journalists are unacceptable, but how about Thomas Sowell?  Mark Levin?  Rush Limbaugh?  Mix it up a bit. 

    Now that would be more interesting. 

  8. McGehee
    September 26th, 2011 @ 9:48 pm

    Least cynical answer: keep the “horse race” drawn out as long as possible, preferably for a brokered convention.

    Second least cynical answer: Ailes doesn’t think “the leading Repub. candidate” can win if nominated (and fails to notice Romney’s fatal flaw in that regard).

  9. rosalie
    September 26th, 2011 @ 9:53 pm

    That’s why I no longer get news from TV.  I can’t take the drama/conflict/theatrics any more.  And let’s not forget the bias.  No one seems to like the way the debates are run.  Surely, there has to be a better way. 

  10. Joe
    September 26th, 2011 @ 9:54 pm

    Maybe.  Now I have seen patently unfair questions from Chris Matthews that would definitely warrant pushback.  I am not sure Chris Wallace’s question is really that much of a zinger.  Perry does have a perception of being too soft on immigration.  So why not provoke some dialogue between Perry and Santorum (or one of the other candidates)?   When you are the front runner, you are going to get the most flack.  Cain will get that coming up this week. 

    But I do agree when these circumstances do arise, some push back to the question givers is definitely warranted and will be welcomed by all of us (including Luntz’ focus group). 

     I am not going to fault a journalist for trying to trip up a candidate, provided they are doing it fairly to both sides.  And while I am not a huge fan of Chris Wallace, I do not perceive him has being unfair.   

  11. Anonymous
    September 26th, 2011 @ 10:01 pm

    Thanks for the observation, but that does cast doubt on Fox’s “fair and balanced” trademark. Sort of….

  12. Anonymous
    September 26th, 2011 @ 10:02 pm

    But regardless of who is the Repub nominee, I’d vote for whomever, even for my bedroom slipper, before I would vote for O.

  13. TR
    September 26th, 2011 @ 10:09 pm

    BTW, is tofu bamboo a kind of food or a combination? just curious…

  14. Anonymous
    September 26th, 2011 @ 10:15 pm

    Actually, that name is the combined names of two of my dogs, Tofu and Bamboo. Pekingese, of course….

  15. Bob Belvedere
    September 26th, 2011 @ 10:56 pm

    Well…as a certain Douche Nozzle said recently: Take off your bedroom slippers and put on your walkin’ shoes!!!

  16. Anonymous
    September 26th, 2011 @ 11:02 pm

    That’s great!!! Well, maybe I should have used a different noun, like maybe the local trash can… oops, does that describe him????

  17. Anonymous
    September 27th, 2011 @ 12:09 am

    The problem is when you have journalists being the moderators they want to have the candidates make news so they can report it. To Chris Wallace asking Newt about his campaign staff quiting was a proper question because he thought it spoke to Newts organizational skills. My reaction was WGaF about “inside the campaign” drama when there only two hours to ask five candidates questions (or however many). Asking Santorum about his policy on immigration or Perry his policy on is OK asking Santorum “would you like to take this opportunity to tell mister Perry he’s a punk on immigration?” not so much. These debates need to be moderated by people who want to know what we want to know. People like Sewell and Levin or Limbaugh (not both at the same time) Bill Whittle would be an excellent choice.

    As for Chris Matthews when ever he asks a question, snorts, sneezes, winks, looks your way or smiles, the reply should always come from a Wrist Rocket.

  18. Joe
    September 27th, 2011 @ 12:09 am

    I agree rosalie.  I used to (after 9/11) watch political shows all the time.  I don’t bother any more.  I read blogs, read Drudge, read Real Clear Politics.  It is better and more info.  If I am driving I do listen to Talk Radio. 

  19. Anonymous
    September 27th, 2011 @ 12:12 am

    Hannity is the closest thing to a wingnut on FNC, to the extent that FNC is conservative it’s very conventional.

  20. McGehee
    September 27th, 2011 @ 1:16 am

    I always thought they would have done better staying with, “We report, you decide.” I gather they had to punt that one when they started doing opinion shows with O’Reilly and Geraldo.

  21. Anonymous
    September 27th, 2011 @ 1:30 am

    Too bad, because tainting public opinion like the above report detracts from their integrity. On the other hand, they are a darned site less creepy than MSNBC….

  22. ThePaganTemple
    September 27th, 2011 @ 2:18 am

    Most people wouldn’t vote for a candidate who would say the things to Chris Matthews I think should be said to him.

  23. ThePaganTemple
    September 27th, 2011 @ 2:24 am

    I think Shep Smith kinda digs Jon Huntsman. O’Reilly now, he’s an independent, you know, only looking out for the folks. Hannity is the only one of that bunch worth watching, and he acts like a buffoon half the time.

  24. Adjoran
    September 27th, 2011 @ 3:07 am

    The ONLY difference between Fox and the other networks is Fox gave Kurtz access, where the others have enough sense to know the sniveling little weasel is just a rodent dropping in the grain bin of life.

    The problem is surrendering to the baloney that gives the media a say in debates.  Oh, sure, let them put their cameras where they need to in order to broadcast, but why should they have anything to do with rules or choosing panelists?

    If our candidates are smart enough to be President, they are smart enough to sit up there without media stars aching to be tomorrow’s headline with a good gotcha question, only a timekeeper, and discuss the issues.

    I’m sure Romney, Perry, Cain, or even Ron Paul can tell you what kind of tree they would want to be without media prodding – if they think it is important to the nation.

  25. Adjoran
    September 27th, 2011 @ 3:08 am

    Shep pretty obviously digs the mirror most of all.

  26. Bob Belvedere
    September 27th, 2011 @ 12:58 pm


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