Blurring the Boundaries

The convergence of television and politics is a disease without a cure

by Gordon Campbell

Politics and television merged quite some time ago. With the result that we now laugh for instance, at the quaint images of television news from the 1970s, which look so gormless and naive. At the time, the style was deliberate. The news was not supposed to look like an entertainment programme or like an ad. The starkness was its way of saying : “I’m real. Watch and listen. This is important.” That difference no longer exists. News, political events…are seen as an extension of programming, and are conveyed with the same techniques and melodrama as the ads.

No, this article isn’t a lament for some bygone age. It is merely an attempt to answer the question: why do people keep voting for some politicians, when its obvious they’re so bad for us? The obviousness is the interesting part. How can politicians be so incompetent and venal and self serving and still rate so highly in the polls? Part of the answer lies in the convergence. Politics is not only on television : it is television. Politics has opinion polls, TV has ratings. We consume politics the same way we consume Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones. We know its kind of crap – and we flatter ourselves that we can see that it is – but we don’t turn it off. As a result, Judith Collins probably has more in common with Tracy Barlow than she has with National Party politicians of even only 15 years ago, like Jenny Shipley. Point being, the failings of politicians are no longer disqualifiers – they’re part of a nightly narrative that’s character driven, not content driven. The flaws, foibles, and f***ups are all ingredients in the storyline.

That’s one reason why John Key’s failings don’t seem to affect his standing. Most of the time, they just make him seem like the daffy father on Modern Family. The recent takedown of David Shearer for his US bank account was a different version of the same process. No one really believes the subsequent attacks on Shearer made by John Banks, Banks least of all. The point was to erode Shearer’s outsider status, to blunt any residual ability he may have had to stand apart and above the normal political process. By screwing up on a point of morality, Shearer brought himself down into the usual narrative, as just one more venal character: the shady preacher you can’t trust. Not an unfair conclusion, either. When sitting down to tot up his list of assets did Shearer, could Shearer really forget he had that money? Or did someone in Shearer’s office figure that declaring $50,000 in an offshore bank account would sit uncomfortably with the Ordinary Dave character he was trying to establish in season one as leader? Would it be something better left as a second season reveal?

The point here is not that politics and TV are shallow and sound bitey, or that politics is about marketing. This isn’t an anti-TV tirade. It is more about the political implications of the old “medium is the message” maxim. Familarity may breed contempt, but omnipresence leads to acceptance and the erosion of the individual response. For example : the beneficiaries we know may not be bludgers, but that’s only a personal reality. They do tend to be presented as bludgers on television though, and that version has the weight of seeming the consensus view.

If politics = television then no wonder that political commentary is almost indistinguishable from TV reviewing. You certainly hear the same carping, and the same virulent dislike for the bogus, focus-grouped mediocrity that the public is spoonfed. No wonder most people ignore political commentary. It is either no fun, or when it tries to make politics fun, it is redundantly cynical. It is no accident that the blogosphere – which prides itself on being the political equivalent of HBO – calls traditional journalism the “mainstream media” and despises it so much. Too clueless, too many ad breaks. Surely free to air television and mainstream political journalism are dying on their feet, together? Anyone?

In reality, it sometimes seems as if the niche politics of the blogosphere and the mass politics of television barely cross over, if at all. Going back to the initial point – how can John Key /Stephen Joyce retain any credibility when they’re so patently clueless? And the answer is : they don’t, but it doesn’t matter as much as it once did. That’s because the likes of Joyce and Key have been the political beneficiaries of the major stylistic accomplishment of television advertising over the last 25 years : the inoculation of the medium with irony. Irony flatters the individual viewer/voter for their perceptiveness, keeps expectations usefully low, and immunises what’s on offer from criticism. Political cynicism is welcomed, in the same way that television actively invites a certain skepticism about its own dodgier efforts.

To the HBO wing of the political blogosphere, Key may be vain and shallow and Joyce may be a bag of wind who has failed hopelessly to foster economic growth – but that sort of detail is felt to belong on a “Making Of “ featurette, and not in prime time. In prime time, the politicians may well come across as awkwardly shifty political tools – but the nightly displays of their fallibility merely confirm the wisdom of having low expectations in the first place. Routinely, journalists function as enablers of that process. The process readily becomes a duet of cynicism, and not a genuine holding to account. That’s the evil genius of television politics, and media theorist Mark Crispin Miller described its elements pretty well in his “Divide and Conquer” essay way back in 1986. For “TV” read “politics.”

TV solicits each viewer’s allegiance by reflecting back his or her own automatic skepticism toward TV. Thus, TV protects itself from criticism or rejection by incorporating our very animus against the spectacle into the spectacle itself.

There is no known cure for this disease. Easy to say that we can switch off television (but we don’t) in a way that we can’t with politics, which is the reality show you can’t escape. Oh, you can vote people off the island, but the show goes on. Until…like even the most beloved of TV shows, governments eventually run their course, and get cancelled. (To be replaced by clones, or variations on a theme.)

Try as we may to bring it about, it is quite hard to imagine the political likes of an HBO hit in the Beehive. And if that did somehow happen, we could merely be doubling down on the cynicism. Tony Soprano, Al Swearingen, Don Draper and Walter White are all very well, but would you want them running the country? They’re not exactly Nelson Mandela. But then again, they might look after the assets and the economic growth better than the guy from Modern Family that we’re stuck with right now.

Footnote : What started me thinking about this was a particular version of the TV/political convergence : namely, male politicians crying in public. American politicians, that is. Here in New Zealand, we’re still a bit behind the trend on this one. Helen Clark getting tearful at Waitangi was the exception that proves the rule. By and large, we’re still more like Robert Muldoon, who after conceding defeat in the 1984 election said : “I’m not going to burst into tears or anything like that. This is politics. You win some and you lose some.”

Americans used to be like that, too. In 1972, the Democratic presidential front-runner Ed Muskie blew his candidacy at a press conference when he cried while making an emotional defence of his wife, who had been accused by a newspaper of drinking and using profanity on the campaign trail. Later, Muskie tried to say those weren’t tears, they were snowflakes melting on my face, but from then on, he was toast.

He wouldn’t be, today. Every American politician and celebrity cries in public now even – or especially – the tough ones. Last year on the campaign trail, Newt Gingrich cried about his mother. Rick Santorum cried before the Iowa caucuses, probably because he remembered how crying in front of the TV cameras before the New Hampshire primary in 2008 helped Hilary Clinton win over the female voters who swung the contest her way. Barack Obama cried, while thanking his staff last year, while Mitt Romney won praise by looking like he was about to cry when thanking his staff. Apparently, the Republican House Speaker John Boehner is a serial crier in public.

There really seems to be an epidemic of public lamentation among celebrities in America. A tough sports guy like Tim Tebow turned on the tears when he lost a game. Robert DeNiro cried when he tried to talk to Katie Couric
about his film Silver Linings Playbook. In fact when director David O. Russell showed DeNiro the script at DeNiro’s home, they cried together. Which is apt, given that co-star Jennifer Lawrence apparently had the same effect on Russell:

Jennifer made David O. Russell cry during her audition for Silver Linings. She made a grown man cry because of her raw talent and emotion.

It is not that celebrities and candidates for public office in America have suddenly become a bunch of cry babies, or that American men are now more in touch with their feelings. The real reason is that as politics and television have converged, emotion has trumped content yet again. Politicians have learned to behave like soap stars, and learned how to telegraph their emotions. Tears are political short hand, a visual soundbite. Politicians have felt impelled to posterise their inner life. Crying on cue means ‘I’m not a cyborg,’ all other appearances to the contrary. And as a politician, you better learn how to put your allegedly deepest feelings out there for all to see, or else you’ll go the way of Democrat Party candidate Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential debates.

Famously, Dukakis was asked by CNN’s Bernard Shaw a question along the lines of : you oppose the death penalty, but would you still oppose it if your wife Kitty was raped and murdered ? The clip of Dukakis’ measured response – which by general consensus, killed his campaign – can be seen here.

The explanation for why Dukakis replied as he did and paid the price that he did is discussed here:

Dukakis didn’t believe in capital punishment. He had seen all the studies and he didn’t believe it deterred crime. So should he throw out that principle because the hypothetical victim was now his wife? Is that what principles were all about? They were good when others’ loved ones were involved but not good when your own were involved? Dispassionately, he expressed his true feelings. And he was savaged for it. He was savaged for giving a sincere and unemotional answer instead of giving an insincere and emotional one.

Admirable enough, but suicidal. In the world of TV politics, the insincere emotional response gets to trump the sincere unemotional one every time. As indicated, there is no known cure for a disease which thankfully hasn’t yet taken full flower here yet. But it would be very interesting to see what a harried, tired John Key might achieve on the campaign trail next year, by wiping away a judicious tear about the effort he has been expending in trying (blink) to turn this country around.