Before there was a Rush Limbaugh there was a Roone Arledge. Arledge was the driving force behind “ABC’s Wide World of Sports”. He made even ordinary events like bowling so entertaining even non-sports fans would tune in to watch on any given weekend. ABC’s sports coverage made the other networks look like high school media projects.
In the late 70’s ABC put Arledge in charge of their ailing, 3rd place news division. How would he make ABC News number 1? Simple, he would make the news entertaining. Soon you had Good Morning America hosted by Hollywood actors. He jazzed up the evening news as well with lots of video, splashy graphics from the same guy who did “2001 a Space Odyssey”, quick paced editing, and a lot less focus on the talking heads. Yep. It was just like watching your favorite football game only without the instant replays. He was also the creator of the wildly successful (for it’s day) “20/20″. The other networks scrambled to follow suite and thus was born the “news-o-tainment” industry. People were no longer watching news to be informed, they were watching the news to be entertained.
Rush Limbaugh came along shortly after Reagan abolished the “Fairness Doctrine”. Rush, being a sports announcer in his past and witnessing the re-invention of news, saw the enormous entertainment value in harpooning politicians. Yes. Politics could be very entertaining indeed. Rush openly and shamelessly admits “I am an entertainer” and boldly proclaimed this in his last interview with the late Tim Russert. After seeing the incredible success of Rush, the news industry decided to follow his lead. They saw the value in making politics “entertaining” and thus the Political Entertainment Industry was born. But in all this, the line between news and entertainment got blurred to the point of obscurity.
I’ve watched the growth of conservative media over the last 10 or 15 years. It’s a great thing. Along with it has grown a whole host of “political celebrities” whose only claim to fame is that they were once in politics. You have seen them on cable news, late night comedy shows, and read their blogs. They usually travel in political circles particularly in the DC Beltway. Some of them are truly committed to their ideology and use their access to the media to bring about constructive dialog. Others are simply in it for the money. And money there is. The cable news networks, major networks, talk radio, Internet, and news papers are the platform for these political celebrities and together they form the Political Entertainment Industry. We support this industry because, let’s face it, we love watching politicians get trashed.
Political celebrities make more money as they climb through the stratosphere of the Political Entertainment Industry. They become Fox News Contributors, they write books, and they get paid lovely speaking fees. If you make it to the upper tier, you can make millions a year. But in the immortal words of that great philosopher, Cindy Lauper, “Money changes everything.”
I have watched once staunch conservative activists water down their message as their yearly income increased until it got to the point that it is impossible to tell them from the Left at times. Why? I think there’s a moment in their lives when they start making more money than they ever dreamed and they start to worry about protecting that big, beautiful revenue stream. Suddenly the message changes so as not to offend any or part of their audience. Gradually the priority becomes sustaining the life style and not serving the cause of truth. Becoming a political celebrity is no longer a side benefit of serving in politics, it is rapidly becoming the end goal.
Why is this a problem? First of all, it turns us into spectators. The formula is simple. A talk show host or pundit finds the current hot button issue, stirs up his audience, the audience gets their daily emotional fix, and the process repeats the following day. As a result, politics has become nothing but another arena sport. They become willing spectators rather than getting in the game. People watch politics to be entertained instead of watching because it’s important to their future, their family’s future, and the future of the country. I think this is intentional to a point. A well entertained electorate is a docile electorate. It’s bread and circus all over again. To be sure, the politicians are fully aware of this dynamic.
Secondly, it dilutes true conservatism. I keep seeing polls that show “conservatives” outnumber liberals by 2 to 1. This is puzzling for a couple of reasons. If it were true, how do you explain the fact that John McCain was our nominee in 2008? John McCain a conservative? Really? If this poll were true how do you explain the fact that we have the most Left-wing President in US history? He was elected in spite of the numerous warnings from conservative media. How was it possible? Where were all those “conservatives” then? Political celebrities inevitably become role models. They become icons for what a conservative should be. The problem is that many political celebrities have watered down their conservative views in order to reach a broader audience. Suddenly gay marriage is OK. Suddenly we need bigger government programs to pay for prescriptions and fight Climate Change. Suddenly we can’t deport illegals because we don’t’ want to brake up families. Suddenly conservatism is not about values and principals. It’s now about “big tents.” Political celebrities more and more are taking their cues from Oprah and less from Reagan.
The third problem with the Political Entertainment Industry is that it gives us a false sense of security.
Too often people find themselves listening to their favorite political celebrity on the radio or TV as they trash the Left or some Progressive politician. The unsuspecting viewer or listener walks away with the sense that this smack down will actually change something. They feel that the political celebrity is somehow moving US policy are blocking the relentless advance of Progressivism. With few exceptions, the political celebrity takes off their mike, leaves the studio, and heads to the golf course or their favorite pub.
Lastly the Political Entertainment Industry is willing to manipulate the news to drive profits. The most glaring example is the current GOP primary. According to Hugh Hewitt, executive editor of TownHall magazine, there will be 5 billion dollars spent during the primaries. He makes it clear that most of that will go to the media with increased ad buys, greater audience with a spike in ratings, more web ads, etc. The Presidential Election Season is to the media what the Christmas season is to the malls. It is in their best interest to prolong the primary as long as possible. As a result what you see reported as “news” is little more than rumors or overheard conversation or just out-and-out fabrications. The real down side is that candidates must spend more money to stay competitive. Voters must donate more to candidates that will not be the nominee. This exhausts the limited pool of resources and leaves us with less money for the general election. As Erick has mentioned in earlier postings, it would be better for the primary to coalesce around one candidate as soon as possible so they can focus on fund raising and beating Obama and less on beating their fellow candidates.
For all the “between the line” readers out there let me make it clear that I think RedState is one of the few news outlets that actually digs into the real issues that affect voters. RedState is clearly the exception and not the rule. No, I am not related to Erick Erickson. I have been coming here since the early days when they had to have fund raising drives every quarter to keep the lights on.
I haven’t named names because I don’t want this to be about personalities. I want this to be about the bigger issues like outraged voters self-medicating on the digital Prozac of political entertainment. This is about voters surrendering their Constitutional right to run their own country to surrogates in the media. At the end of the day it’s up to us to get off our butts and make things happen. We need to support solid candidates with our time or money. We need to resist the craving to be entertained because we are being entertained right into serfdom. As a famous man once said “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” The masses are losing their religion, but they still crave an opiate. As much as anything we can now say “Entertainment is the opiate of the masses.”