Sam Smith – The other day I came across a poem I wrote about a week after the first Kennedy-Nixon debate (probably for Roll Call newspaper where I was working at the time):
I’ll Take My Candidate Without Cream or Sugar, Thank You
Pollster, spare that candidate
Give him a chance to run
Free from all percentage points
Safe from statistics’ gun.
Makeup men, leave them alone
Stop your foolish fixin’
Just look at the mess you made
Painting Mr. Nix’n
Television man, you goofed,
You made the Veep too hot,
You brought poor Dick more age with
A misdirected spot.
Ghostwriters, I do not care
How you’d run the states;
Just let me hear the views of
But Dick and John are hidden
A glance is all I see
With too damn many people
Between those two and me.
It turned out that what I would much later describe as the beginning of show business politics I had already sensed at the time. And as the pollsters reported, Nixon won the debates among radio listeners while Kennedy won it on TV.
Now, some 58 years later, we are experiencing the dismal effects of having declared politics and show business to be soulmates. And our major mentor, the TV news media, is one that can’t even differentiate its own role from that of Hollywood or Broadway. Compare clips of a TV news shouter of today and, say, Walter Cronkite and you’ll see what I mean.
This has been long time coming, and while Trump is clearly the worst beneficiary, it is an old story that just hasn’t been covered well. For example, when the Post in the 1960s changed its woman’s section into “Style” –a concept with which Washington wasn’t all that familiar – politicians found themselves becoming stars rather than servants of the people. And soon the Washington media followed.
In reality, stars don’t exist. They are an act both on screen and in media coverage. You have to read things like Radar or In Touch to get a feeling for what they are like off screen. And since the Washington media increasingly has become a participant in the illusion, it can not offer much relief.
I first became conscious of the true cost of this illusion when during the 1992 primaries I began finding an extraordinary amount of dirt in the Clinton story. Neither the Clintons nor Arkansas were how they were described in the mainstream media. What was even more startling was the lack of interest in any of this information by the regular media. I even got banned from a couple of CSPAN appearances and from a Washington public radio station because of what I had reported.
When Trump came along there was a much greater separation of fact and image, with the latter favored in this case not because the media liked him as they did Clinton, but because Trump was a media star whom you couldn’t really expose without raising questions about the media itself.
And there was something else, Clinton had actually run a government and so had some important qualifications that Trump did not.
And what happened in the latter’s first year? Another star, Oprah Winfrey, was widely promoted in the media as a leading Democratic alternative. Admittedly, Winfrey was infinitely more decent, intelligent and honest than Trump, but neither of the two had any experience in building highways or preventing a war.
But we had reached a point where stardom surpassed all other virtues and failures. And even if there was no real business like show business – and certainly not politics – it no longer mattered.
Fortunately, there are still journalists covering news like it is still news rather than entertainment but we must learn to differentiate between such real coverage and that which seems to think that Donald Trump is still hosting a TV show.