I got around to watching The Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear on a CSPAN rerun on Saturday night; Saturday afternoons in the fall are religiously reserved for watching at least one college football game in it's entirety. So while many of my progressive brothers and sisters were being entertained by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and a cast of 200,000 in Washington,DC, I was watching Pitt stick it to Louisville from Heinz Field.
Reading comments about the rally (and there's some really good one's at Sue's blog, for example), had me thinking about where we are in this country as far as the ratcheting up of rhetoric, and of the level of divisiveness we see today. Republican strategist Ed Rollins was on CNN last week- he's a conservative but very personable and reasonable guy- and he said something that I, being a lifelong Democrat agree with 110%; the level of nastiness in American politics has never been more venomous or destructive. Ed Rollins has been a party operative to the days before Richard Nixon, back to the Reagan administration- as governor of California. And he knows of what he speaks.
Jon Stewart, in his closing remarks at the rally should have touched a nerve with the nation's opinion makers and pundits, both self proclaimed and appointed......
The country's 24-hour, political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder. The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen. Or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire, and then perhaps host a week of shows on the dangerous, unexpected flaming ants epidemic. If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.
And then came the shots at Stewart, from both left and right. Right winger Andrew Breitbart said the following about the rally (and a veiled shot at Stewart).
It's very motivating for conservatives to have that stereotyped group of Manhattan elitists, know-it-alls, snarky, smarmy liberals to be looking down on average Americans."
On the left, Keith Olbermann said on Twitter that Stewart had "jumped the shark" in his criticism of cable news.
But in analysis, there is more than a little truth in what Stewart said. Cable news has become a chess game of finger pointing at not only those people in the news, but at each other in the news gathering/punditry business- those on "the other guy's" network.
Let's back track for a few minutes and talk about broadcast news, the way it used to be. There used to be the "Big Three" networks 30 years ago, with Walter Cronkite on CBS, John Chancellor for NBC, and Peter Jennings on ABC, all doing their network's respective evening news broadcasts.. The networks were required by the FCC to have news broadcasts for their licensing responsibilities, shown for the public good. News operations lost money routinely in those days, but still produced broadcast journalists and journalism that set the standards by which those that followed were judged.
In the late 1960's, a news magazine called 60 Minutes made it's debut on CBS. It was low rated, and had a cult following for years. By the mid 1970's that changed; it became a phenomenon, a ratings winner, and the show moved to it's familiar 7PM Eastern and Pacific timeslot on Sunday nights.
And it was a game changer for network news; it MADE money instead of losing it. News could be entertaining and informative, and show a profit for the network. The success of 60 Minutes was the first of the changes that would alter the news universe forever. Soon ABC and NBC followed with their own news magazines, 20/20 and Dateline. And there were similar shows on the local TV stations, who's aim was to inform, entertain, and just as importantly, get good ratings and make a few bucks.
Then in 1980 came the second big change in news; Ted Turner founded CNN. The news cycle became 24/7. And with the 24/7 news cycle the constant need to feed the beast; more news all of the time, some of it important, some of it less so. Punditry had a new home where it could flourish at levels never before seen. CNN became a money maker, and in less than two decades competition emerged- conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch launched Fox News on October 7, 1996. A few months early, in July 1996, MSNBC, a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC, took to the airwaves.
Over the next ten years the ideological lines were drawn to what we have in cable news today; Fox became the information source of conservative America, MSNBC spoke to the progressives, and CNN tried to walk a fine line in the middle. Fox and MSNBC gave their respective viewers the messages and answers they wanted to hear, those which reaffirmed their personal belief systems. And those two networks were the ones that shouted the loudest, though CNN would get into the fray as well.
Because it wasn't just about news anymore; it was about ratings, and money, and showing a profit for the corporate bottomline. The cable news networks had their audiences, and now they had to keep them. The shouting began in the Clinton administration, and continued and got louder under Bush, and became even louder in the Obama years.
The news networks didn't create the toxic discourse we see today; talk radio and the print news industry, and political demagogues have been around much longer than cable news. But cable news did give a bigger megaphone to those on different sides of the ideological spectrum. The voices of the cable news channels get paid quite well to do what they do, and like all good performers play to their audience. They do and say the things their audience only wishes it could do and say, about politicians, and about those they disagree with.
Joseph Campbell, the great teacher and mythologist, once said that a society that gains a new technology usually feels a sense of breakdown. For instance, when the American Indians obtained firearms and horses the old ways of hunting , and the religious, symbolic, and societal rituals of the hunt slowly eroded away, doing damage to their culture and traditions, and hastened their fall to Euro-centric expansionism. The printing press of Renaissance Europe spread new learning and ushered in the Age of Exploration. But it also gave a translation of the Bible, and the spread of religious protest and dissent that resulted in decades of war and destruction
And maybe that's where we are now with political discourse. The rise of cable news, and the internet as well, created an opportunity for instant access to breaking events around the world, be it large or small. But that same technology can be used to promote agendas for those who control the airwaves; and sometimes that means keeping people divided for one's own interest.
I really find it amusing to listen to Tea Partiers who "want to take the country back to what the Founding Fathers Wanted". I hate to tell those of you who believe it can be done, but it can't. The founders of our nation could not fathom where we are technically, where you can pull a device out of you pocket and talk to anyone in the world, or send a written message in a matter of seconds, or buy some clothes and pay for it instantly, or read the news of the day originating in Paris or London.
Remember, the first citizens of the United States could walk past their congressmen, their senators, or even President Washington himself, and not recognize one of them- no photography yet, or enough access to portraits of the men who governed America. Today every word uttered in Congress or the West Wing is watched by thousands on CSPAN, and analyzed for hours on the news. Congressmen lived in Washington (or New York or Philadelphia) for months at a time back in the day; they had to- travel was long, slow, arduous, and was on horseback. Today Congressmen fly home every weekend to raise more money for the next election. In that bygone era lawmakers lived together and even spent time off together- even those of opposing parties found commonality and friendship in what we now call "downtime". And the reality is today's lawmakers must play to the omnipresent camera, remembering every word and nuance will be gone over with a fine toothed comb, and eventually will be on YouTube.
A different world, and a different time.
And we can't go back, we can only move forward.
So step back, take a deep breath, then think......and then respond. Maybe that's a first step out of many that need to be taken.
Update! Huffington Post has a slide show of differing opinions on the merits of the Rally To Restore Sanity from pundits on both sides of the political spectrum. It's worth a look.