Are You Not Entertained? How politics became theatrics, reporters became paparazzi and stories became storylines, and we all tumbled into tabloid. Dr Duff Watkins explains.
THE BEST U.S. President you never had or heard of may’ve been Gary Hart.
He may also be the reason behind the rise of Donald Trump.
Let me explain...
Hart was good-looking, brilliant (graduate degrees from Yale Law and Yale Divinity), and a visionary political thinker. He managed successful national campaigns for others, then was elected a U.S. Senator from Colorado.
The problem? Sex (sort of).
In 1987, he was the leading candidate to capture the Democratic nomination for the presidency and seemed destined for the White House. He was serious, articulate and telegenic. His campaign was cashed up and well organised. He was a strong front-runner. He was winning.
Then, in one week, his candidacy imploded and his career was reduced to a footnote (which is why you’ve probably never heard of Gary Hart).
Hart was photographed on a boat with a younger, beautiful woman who wasn’t his wife (he was separated at the time).
Newspaper reporters publicly and aggressively insinuated that Hart was having an extra-marital affair with the young woman.
It became not just a story (a narrative designed to inform) but a storyline (a contrived, extended narrative used in TV series, Marvel comics, and any media format seeking prolongation).
In other words, fiction.
Since the initial “story” was not novel – "mature pollie has sex with young bimbo" is an old tale and not worthy of stopping the presses – a gripping storyline was required.
Something with legs. Something with real media mileage. Something that would retain readers, attract advertisers. Something that would earn. A story has a beginning, middle and end but a storyline must have plot twists, turns, surprises and reversals to sustain it over time (for example, House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and so on). In both, the aim is to arrest the viewer’s attention. But a storyline must do it longer.
That’s how it all started, says Matt Bai, national political correspondent for Yahoo News and former editor of New York Times magazine. Listen to Matt Bai on 'How the U.S. Election Became a Reality Show' here.
That was the inflexion point in U.S. politics that marked the emergence of politics-cum-entertainment. That’s when politics gave way to theatrics; when storylines ascended over facts.
How do you turn a story into a storyline? Start by effacing the facts:
Bimbo? Hardly. The young woman involved was a model and working actress named Donna Rice. She graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from university with a science degree. With her academic credentials, she could enter any graduate program in the United States. She was hoping to get a job on Hart’s campaign when she got involuntarily sucked up into a salacious storyline of U.S. politics.
Sex? Doubtful. To this day, Hart and Rice deny any sexual liaisons (as if it were anybody else’s business, then or now). Weirdly, Hart got dinged for having pseudo-sex.
Then transform the narrative: instead of a presidential campaign, turn it into a morality play. Put the protagonist through a public ordeal, question his integrity, reduce his character to caricature.
Result: A purported but unproved extra-marital affair defames Hart, turns his serious presidential campaign into a salacious storyline and he becomes entertainment fodder.
Character smeared, campaign stalled, resources drained, Hart resigned from the race.
Cui bono? asked the ancient Romans. Who benefits? At that pre-internet time, it was anybody trying to sell newspapers, periodicals and TV air time. As usual, follow the money.
Which takes us to Trump.
The pseudo-salaciousness of Hart has given way to the bumptious mendacity of Trump because, evidently, the thirst for politics-as-entertainment is unquenched.
Remember, what drives politics-as-entertainment is paying customers.
Leslie Moonvees, Chairman of CBS said of Trump’s candidacy:
"It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS."
(Meaning it generates advertising, clicks, viewers, higher ratings, all of which turn into $ into $$$ for CBS.)
But what’s good for CBS is not good for the USA. Good programming does not equal good politics.
That’s the point: politics may be entertaining but it’s not entertainment. It’s not meant to be a cash cow for media conglomerates. It’s an endeavour of serious consequence, not amusement for the masses.
'What happened in 1987 was that the finest political journalists of a generation surrendered all at once to the idea that politics had become another form of celebrity-driven entertainment, while simultaneously disdaining the kind of reporting that such a thirst for entertainment made necessary.'
'... we in the media made Trump possible in the first place and enjoyed the entertainment (and ratings) he provided for far too long. When the election ends there needs to be some newsroom soul-searching.'
Damn right. It was the media that supplied oxygen to the viral flame of Trump’s candidacy. Or as Milbank put it, the watch-dogs of the press forgot to bark.
There will always be people who prefer entertainment over enlightenment, crudity to competence, the sensational to the sensible. Some of us will persist in “amusing ourselves to death.” (Neil Postman)
Such choices exist in free countries.
In the movie Gladiator, Russell Crowe sardonically asks the bloodthirsty audience who’ve witnessed his gory triumph,
“Are you not entertained? Is that not why you are here?”
Good questions, Rusty.
Objective journalism is still required. Fairness is the shining virtue it always was. Let the curtain fall on politics-as-entertainment and leave the manufacturing of entertainment to Hollywood.
Instead, let’s retain the higher standards of press neutrality, objective reporting and a respect for facts. Let’s declare anew that truth matters.
In fact, let’s insist on it.
Duff Watkins invites you to visit his blog: Headhunter Confessions: How The Job Market Really Works and listen to the AmCham Business Podcast where he interviews guests ranging from U.S. Ambassadors to CEOs. You can also join Duff on Twitter @DrDuffWatkins.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
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