February 2008 Issue
by Jon Graef
One of the most interesting parts of the sans-writers “A Daily Show With Jon Stewart” (the lack of a definitive article is Stewart’s concession and/or tribute to the writers, in lieu of a Conan-esque beard) is the fact that the guest interviews are often twice as long as they were before the writer’s strike. The move is immensely practical, seeing as it’s a way for the show to last the entire 22 minutes it needs to in order to provide the viewer with what will be original (and hopefully thought-provoking) material without having to do any writing whatsoever.
On a recent “A Daily Show”, Stewart had on CNN newscaster/commenter Lou Dobbs, who was on in order to provide some context and insight into Hillary Clinton’s recent upset of Barack Obama in the New Hampshire primary, as well as to jawbone about current poll happenings. Dobbs, whose most recent book is titled Independents Day, was being complemented by Stewart for having humbly suggested that the news media, of which Dobbs is obviously a part, acted in haste by predicting Barack Obama to be the winner of the Granite State’s primary election. To his credit, Dobbs admitted that “most of [the news media] understood that we had perhaps overstepped [our boundaries] in terms of forecasting the results, going too much with the polls…” to which Stewart dryly replied, “You’re suggesting inaugurating Obama was the wrong move?”
But by far, the most enlightening part of the interview was when the “A Daily Show” host played Dobbs a clip of the “Question of the Night” feature from that day’s edition of Dobbs’ show. The question was framed in terms of authenticity — specifically, the media’s. The exact wording was: “Are you tired of the national media reporting on the presidential race in terms of charisma, change, dynasty, momentum and likeability instead of the candidates’ positions on the issues?”
A stunning 94 percent of the people who answered the poll question answered yes.
Of course, a question posed on a cable news program is hardly scientific and should have its methodology questioned. That said, what an overwhelmingly affirmative response. (The only people who can hope to attain higher approval ratings are vote-rigging dictators.) To put it into perspective, 92 percent of Americans believe, to a degree, in God. In other words, a more substantive approach to presidential politics is more popular than the Almighty (or, to be less of a deist about it, a transcendental reality).
Usually, this would be a good time to make a pithy remark drenched with wit and incredulity, but a far more important question has emerged: If we are so disenchanted with the state of the media in the context of the 24-hour news networks, then why do we give said media credibility by watching? Furthermore, why do we let the news media define our political discourse in such a shallow horse-race mentality year after year? And why is said discourse always so toxic — with false dichotomies, rage, intolerance, name-calling, and poor logic defining the nature of our national discussions?
Several books released since the beginning of this election cycle struggle with the question of how the country became so polarized, why people vote against their common interests, and why people are so dependent on a media for which they seem to have no respect or admiration. One example is Pat Buchanan’s book Day Of Reckoning. That’s right, the man who once admonished then-New York Mayor Ed Koch to cancel the city’s gay pride parade (lest Koch “be held personally responsible for the spread of the AIDS plague”) wrote a book about how ideology is like worshipping a golden calf, insofar as it seeks to create a paradise on Earth which is unrealistic or unattainable.
Pat. Fucking. Buchanan. This isn’t the first time I’ve wondered aloud, “Pat Buchanan gets it, why the hell can’t anyone else?” (Believe or not, Buchanan was one of the Second Iraq War’s earliest critics). But while perusing Buchanan’s book, I thought of another title of a similar theme: Thomas Frank’s best-selling book What’s the Matter with Kansas?
The thesis of Frank’s book addressed why working class citizens in the titular state voted for Republican politicians who, by and large, have drafted economic policies which contrast sharply with their own self-interest. In the book, Frank also coins a term “plenty plaint”, to describe the technique that social conservatives use to outrage their voters into action via pushing their buttons on hot topics like school prayer. Simply put, the “plenty plaint” is a catalyst for outrage social conservatives feel regarding issues that don’t impact their life in any way — such as gay marriage.
Upon re-examining Frank’s term, it would seem as if the “plenty plaints” are driving today’s political discourse and helping prevent real legislative progress from being made in Congress. The “plenty plaint” is everywhere, stirring up controversy by creating straw-man issues and arguments. Because the media are part of the “plenty plaint” they, of course, are able to define the issues of the day, which to them means whether or not a candidate is likeable, charismatic, has momentum, or fulfills any sort of political dynasty.
But based on what CNN’s own viewers are telling them, the public-at-large seems to desire a stronger, more substantive newscast. The question is whether or not we’ll receive what we supposedly desire, or if we actually want it. The downside to the internet’s infinite marketplace of ideas is that it’s easy to fall into an ideological rut. That is, it’s easy to confirm your suspicions because there are so many political websites out there that tell you exactly what you would like to hear.
The only solution to the problem of our nation’s vapid political discourse is to remove ourselves completely from the process of the “plenty plaint” and put it back where it’s supposed to be: with friends, in bookstores, over newspapers, anywhere but in front of the television.
It’s perfectly understandable that the average person — whomever that may be — doesn’t have the time or the inclination to pay attention to politics. Thus that person turns to cable news for a quick political fix. But do they get the information they need? Of course not. Instead, they’re inundated with crap about dynasty and charisma, all delivered in a snide, snarky, ill-advised tone. In order for discourse to improve and for voters to become more informed, we need to do more than voice our displeasure in cable news shows by participating in its polls. We need to completely disconnect, as disconnection is the ultimate form of disapproval. Just imagine if we all voiced our disapproval by not watching at all. Then, Lou Dobbs wouldn’t need a poll or Jon Stewart to tell him that the discourse needs to change. He would have figured it out all by himself.
CI Political File #004