TV's Most Useless Reality Show
By Howard Rosenberg -- Broadcasting & Cable, 7/11/2004 8:00:00 PM
America's presidential election season is about to amp up, with much of television again poised to switch on the blinding wattage of political theater. On July 26, Democrats will convene four days of gaseous oratory in Boston—they don't call it Beantown for nothing—and Republicans will fire up their own partisan flatulence Aug. 30-Sept. 2 in New York.
The marquees are filling. Publishing's best-selling Big Bubba and half of Hollywood are Boston bound, and California's grinning, high-beam governor will wrap a brawny arm around Madison Square Garden and assure us the GOP is "terrific." Expect demonstrations, too. Unease about potential terrorism will hover darkly over both convention cities. So will the vapor trail of Michael Moore.
Hold your nose. These spin-orgies will be the ultimate fictions of campaign coverage and, as such, hardly distinguishable from the rest of TV's lens-tailored, faux- reality madness.
Lights, cameras, stagecraft—that script always guides Democrats and Republicans at their nominating conventions. The same applies to subsequent televised candidate debates. Despite media attention, these events yield few insights and celebrate qualities largely irrelevant to guiding the nation.
Democrats and Republicans hold conventions every four years to choose candidates for president and vice president who have already been chosen and to adopt party platforms no one recalls or even reads. And, in various degrees, the media grant them center stage for it.
Instead, barring the unexpected breaking story, a 30-second TV summary and half column of newspaper space would suffice daily, with C-SPAN providing the only coverage of record. But fat chance.
Cable's congenitally over-the-top all-news channels are revving up for something close to wall-to-wall coverage. ABC, CBS and NBC will continue to downsize drastically, but even those few hours are more than the conventions deserve. Even worse, PBS plans three hours a night.
In the good old days, these events were rumbles of action and insults featuring suspenseful infighting and intrigue over naming a party's standard-bearer and No. 2. However, there has been no truly exciting nominating convention for ages. Let's see, what was that dude's name, Grover Cleveland?
But seriously, no national convention since 1952 has gone past the first ballot. Not for decades, in fact, has there been a truly definitive one, a convention whose presidential nominee wasn't known in advance, whose undecided delegates did matter. For most conventions, television had no higher purpose than filling time and brushing sheen on politicians and the journalists covering them.
Good people can disagree on whether the present system of having state primaries and caucuses cumulatively pick major-party presidential nominees is better than combustible conventions of the past, where the tickets were dictated in private by wheeling, dealing party leaders.
But there's no question that this summer's conventions will be relevance-challenged.
Yet they are treasured by political parties as spotlights for showboating and trumpeting their troops to battle, and by Fox, CNN and MSNBC as inflatable programming that fills epic news holes.
This is hardly justification for granting them panoramic coverage, however. Without media, especially TV, pumping in the helium, these old-gloried, soft- moneyed infomercials would have atrophied to the bone in obscurity.
Best-case scenario: They will die soon despite getting mouth-to-mouth from some in the media.
Greater longevity probably looms for televised debates, which stress camera skills over substance and agile wit and speedy answers over reflection, as if glibness would ensure a safer and healthier U.S.
The candidate who weighs a debate question thoughtfully before responding—a trait you'd want in the Oval Office—appears indecisive or flustered. Instead, camera-ready sound bites and one-liners right out of The West Wing are now a prerequisite for leadership. Why else would the road to the White House lead through Leno and Letterman?
Televised debates are now the popular currency of electioneering after geysering in prominence following the pivotal Kennedy-Nixon clashes of 1960. And coming this fall are three President Bush-John Kerry debates (minus independent Ralph Nader) and one with vice-presidential hopefuls.
Kerry says he can't wait to see his running mate, John Edwards, go "toe-to-toe" with Vice President Dick Cheney.
Debates can be memorable, as in 1980, when Ronald Reagan repeatedly told Jimmy Carter, "There you go again." So voters will watch closely this fall to see whether Bush swallows his tongue when trying to pronounce Abu Ghraib or Kerry dislocates his jaw when attempting a smile.
Advocates of such debates insist they energize voters, as if what they will see is necessarily what they would get.
Instead, these learned candidates will cram in advance like college students before final exams, filling their brains with information they already should know. They'll rehearse like the actors they are, practicing looking presidential and projecting strength with warmth, brilliance with humility—and an insider's knowledge with an outsider's sensibility.
Afterwards come TV's conveyor belts of post-debate schmooze. The usual knee-jerks will proclaim winners and losers, and reporters will hemorrhage opinion under the pretense of analysis and interpretation as part of what former Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor titled the "punditocracy."
What does all this have to do with the presidency?
The short answer is nothing; the long answer is absolutely nothing.
In other words, there they go again.
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