Sex, drugs and rock and roll: entertainment journalism in a polarized world

Republicans are up in arms about “Eastern elitists”.  Democrats are in a dither about lies and distortions.  Who’s got it right?  Can both complaints be valid?  If so, who is the biggest villain?

In a polarized society groping in vain for a unifying narrative, who plays referee?  The New York Times?  Fox News?  MSNBC?

Editors have always tried to maintain journalistic integrity (neutrality, objectivity and balance) while dishing up a hot product.  Gradually, entertainment started trumpling integrity.

On the verge of the last general election, Jon Stewart raised eyebrows when he appeared on Crossfire (a now-defunct CNN program) hosted by Paul Begala (the token liberal) and Tucker Carlson (the token conservative.  Stewart accused both men of “partisan hackery” and asked them to “stop hurting America.”

At first, Bagala and Stewart thought the comic host of The Daily Show must be kidding.  Wasn’t he the king of fake news?  But Stewart was dead serious.  Here’s how the conversation unfolded:

STEWART: See, the thing is, we need your help. Right now, you’re helping the politicians and the corporations. And we’re left out there to mow our lawns.

BEGALA: By beating up on them? You just said we’re too rough on them when they make mistakes.

STEWART: No, no, no, you’re not too rough on them. You’re part of their strategies.

Neither Begala nor Carlson had a clue what stewart was talking about:

BEGALA: We’re 30 minutes in a 24-hour day where we have each side on, as best we can get them, and have them fight it out.

STEWART: No, no, no, no, that would be great. To do a debate would be great. But that’s like saying pro wrestling is a show about athletic competition.

Professional wrestling generally pits a “baby face” (whom the audience is supposed to like) against a heel (the villain).  Stewart was suggesting that, in a culturally polarized nation, news stations like CNN hold faux debates between professional partisans, people paid the big bucks to mouth market-tested talking points.  It is assumed that the liberals in the audience will cheer for their guy while the conservatives will do the reverse.  All views are represented, the issues are aired, and the public is both entertained and well served.  What’s to complain about?

But that assumes that real debates are being staged.  In the real world of cable news, the liberal and the conservative aren’t speaking honestly and from the heart; they’re reading from shop-worn scripts (albeit at the top of their lungs).  You know what both sides are going to say before they say it.

Maybe there’s something vaguely reassuring about that.

In recent years we have witnessed the rise of partisan news organizations like Fox News and, increasingly, MSNBC.  On most FOX programs, the conservative in the fight is presented as the baby face while the liberal always plays the heel.  Keith Olbermann has recently been packaging himself as the liberal answer to Bill O’Reilly.  When the two media stars snipe at each other the ratings of both combatants get a boost.

Is the public really being served by all of this.  Are we even being entertained?

Yes and no.  Liberals feel reassured and validated by Mr. Olbermann in precisely the way conservatives love to hear Mr. O’Reilly confirming their worst fears and suspicions.

But what if you honestly don’t know what to believe?  What if you’re genuinely confused and looking for some new information and a fresh perspective?  Sorry, if you want a real contest you’re stuck with football.

On cable news earlier this week it was all-lipstick-all-the-time.  The McCain camp was accusing
Barack Obama of calling Sarah Palin a pig.  Democrats accused McCain of trying to divert public attention from the real issues.

Why was the mainstream media so drawn to this fake controversy?  Because it fit the wrasslin’ format.  Put on a couple of professional partisans screaming out their assigned talking points and the ratings skyrocket.  Move to a segment on the chances for health care reform featuring informed policy experts and folks start reaching for the remote.

When conservatives accuse liberals of elitism, are they just trying to change the subject?  I don’t think so.  True, McCain and his handlers are desperately trying to keep the public discussion off the economy and the failings of the Bush administration.  It is also true that the McCain campaign is trading in lies and half-truths.  But that doesn’t mean the liberal assault on Sarah Palin hasn’t produced a sympathetic backlash, especially among women who identify with the Alaskan politician in a “she’s just like me” sort of way.

Black and white evangelicals share a sense of alienation from mainstream America.  Journalists couldn’t respond intelligently to either the prophetic preaching of Jeremiah Wright any more than they could intelligently evaluate the dispensational theology popular in the Pentecostal church Sarah Palin grew up in.

There is a strong tendency for the prominent residents of big coastal cities to sneer at folks in the flyover states.  Conservatives aren’t just making this up.  When I tell progressive icons that I run a faith-based organization the condescension is palpable.  You have to live in a red state to understand how big a problem this is for liberals.

The media can’t really evaluate charges of elitism leveled against “the cultured despisers of religion” because the leading pundits sport Ivy League credentials.  Bill Clinton knew enough about the South to get elected.  George Bush looked like the kind of guy you could have a beer with.  Both men, though shaped and molded by elite America, owed their political survival to a credible bubba impersonation.

When Bill Moyers left Lyndon Johnson’s staff, the bucolic commander in chief put in a call to an obscure democratic partisan named H.M. Baggarly, editor of the obscure Tulia Herald.  Without Moyers, Johnson had no one to tell his Ivy League staff how to relate to rural and small town America.

Liberal columnists and politicians are blind to this cultural divide, especially as it applies to religion.  Conservative pundits make tactical use of the issue, but they rarely feel it in their bones unless they grew up in a flyover state.

Is the liberal media trying to derail the Straight Talk Express?  Initially, no.  While Barack and Hillary were slugging it out nobody was paying much attention to the Senator from Arizona.  But the selection of Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate sent a shiver of dread down the spine of the Eastern establishment”.  Even a staunch conservative like George Will is horrified by the prospect of a woman who says “gotta” and “gonna” occupying the oval office.

The media scramble for dirt on Sarah Palin, though understandable to a point, has been a bit over the top.  Pundits could live with either McCain (an old media favorite) or the suave Obama.  Conservatives and liberals agreed that Joe Biden was a dependable VP pick.  Sarah Palin is another question.  The media is both eager to dish the dirt on Sarah and scared to death that they will be accused of bias if they do.

The Washington Post just published a story about Cindy McCain’s addiction issues.  Is the story politically motivated?  The Post will argue that Ms. McCain’s attempts to cover up and mislead reflect on her character.

Lost in the details is this disturbing revelation: “McCain’s conduct left her facing federal charges of obtaining ‘a controlled substance by misrepresenting, fraud, forgery, deception or subterfuge.’ Experts say she could have faced a 20-year prison sentence.”

Twenty years?  For taking Vicodin and Percocet?  Aren’t those presecription drugs?  Yes they are, but if they are obtained illegally they might as well be cocaine and heroine so far as the law is concerned.

Still, twenty years?  Federal sentencing guidelines, originally designed to nail “kingpins” are tied to “relevant conduct”.  If prosecutors can prove that you illegally obtained large quantities of an illegal substance you will go down hard.

Unless, that is, you are the wife of a US Senator (of either party).  In that case, we force the physician who filled the prescriptions (the pusher, if you will) to surrender his credentials while the socially prominent patient walks.

The Cindy McCain story aired briefly in 2000, only to die when it appeared that her husband wouldn’t get the nomination.  This election cycle, journalists were back on the scent the moment the Maverick put his last opponent out of the race.

And then there is story in the New York Times about high ranking officials in the Interior Department having sex and using cocaine with representatives of the oil industry (the folks they were supposed to be regulating).

In three reports delivered to Congress on Wednesday, the department’s inspector general, Earl E. Devaney, found wrongdoing by a dozen current and former employees of the Minerals Management Service, which collects about $10 billion in royalties annually and is one of the government’s largest sources of revenue other than taxes.

The prime villain in this story is Gregory Smith, a veteran bureaucrat who “improperly used his position with the royalty program to get an outside consulting job helping a technical services firm seek deals with oil and gas companies with which he was also conducting official business.”

The story accuses Mr. Smith with being bribed and bedded by a variety of oil executives.  But the most distressing claim is that he regularly used cocaine (obtained from his sectretary or her boyfriend) for his personal pleasure and to help grease the wheels of business.  Smith admits to the sex and the drug use, though he disputes some of the allegations in the Times story.

Is the Department of Justice planning legal action against Gregory Smith and his partners in drug crime?  Apparently not.  Like Cindy McCain, Smith is not a member of the criminal class and is thus effectively immune from prosecution–unless the media starts asking embarrassing question.

Will either the Washington Post or the New York Times ask their readers why the wealthy and the powerful are allowed to play by a separate set of legal rules?  If so, it would be a first.  The public loves to see the mighty brought low (especially if the victim du jour is on the wrong side of the ideological divide); but we don’t want to hear that the poor and the powerless are doing hard time while the affluent get a pass.

This explains why I went to such elaborate lengths to report on the legal plight of a Black Little Rock attorney named Alvin Clay.  Mr. Clay embarrassed the federal government by claiming that an Assistant US Attorney named Bob Govar was intentionally and knowingly prosecuting innocent Black defendants on the perjured testimony of a corrupt state trooper.  A US Attorneys office with a record of studiously ignoring the crimes of public officials involved in the use, production and sale of illegal drugs, prosecuted Alvin Clay on unsubstantiated mortgage fraud charges.  Having secured a conviction in that case (using the perjured testimony of a bizarre witness) the feds are now attempting to manufacture narcotics allegations against Mr. Clay by browbeating vulnerable drug defendants into perjury.

Will the mainstream media take an interest in Alvin Clay’s case?  Not a chance.  Because the drug war enjoys bipartisan support it would be hard to find professional pundits willing to defend Alvin Clay.

The Gregory Smith story has already died (too much competition).  The Cindy McCain piece may stir up a brief controversy because it is tailor made for professional pundits.  Conservatives will rally around Cindy McCain accusing the Post of smear tactics.  Liberals will use the charges of cover-up as yet more evidence that Republicans are all lying scoundrels.  The audience will settle back in their easy chairs and reach for the beer and popcorn.  If they don’t the story will have a short shelf life.

America’s media culture is what it is.  There are plenty of committed journalists out there, but they can’t change their professional world anymore than I can.  Like the rest of us, real journalists shrug and hope they get to do some real reporting.

Two things are certain: (2) Between now and November 4th the air will be thick with inuendo and accusation, and (2) the real issues will be gunned down in the crossfire.

America into the 21st Century

4 thoughts on “Sex, drugs and rock and roll: entertainment journalism in a polarized world

  1. And the most likable (wo)man will win. And we will have four more years of shoot first and talk later foreign policy, and four more years of disastrous economic policy. I hope I’m wrong, but that is what I’ve come to expect.

  2. You’ve painted a pretty grim (and sadly accurate) picture of America’s media culture. The more I watch the final days of the campaign, there is a cultural theme that I can’t help applying to America in the 21st Century; Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll.

    I stumbled into a political cartoon that, in a twisted sense, kind of expresses the hopelessness I feel with our political leadership as the first decade of the 21st century draws to an end. Thought you might appreciate the cartoon, compliments of Cafe Press.

  3. Thanks Alan.

    Waiting to see how the latest sensationalized news nugget from the campaign trail, i.e., the security breach of the Sarah Palin e-mail account, plays in the media. I write this from my chair in easy reach of my beer and popcorn. I throroughly enjoyed your article. Keep ’em coming. 🙂

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