It’s more than a month into the Writers Guild of America strike now. More than a month, consequently, without the barbs of late night stand-ups and Jon Stewart’s insights into the “Clusterf@#k to the White House,” save for a stockroom of old tapes. Television is sorely lacking fresh comic relief from the absurdities of the campaign trail, where the pickings are eternally fresh for satire.
But luckily for us, political news on the boob tube borders on self-parody, thriving as a big-budget, real-life soap opera extravaganza that is uniquely American. In an age in which reality TV and Paris Hilton’s latest escapades dominate the airwaves, newscasters and pundits must search for ways to make the headlines as ludicrously entertaining as they can.
Take as an example the November 28 Republican debate on CNN, where the candidates field questions from a zany selection of YouTube-videoed average Joes. After a mind-numbingly idiotic introduction featuring a talking snowman and UFO and Chris Nandor’s bang-your-head-against-the-wall song about the candidates, Ernie Nardi, a stereotypical tough guy from Brooklyn, shoots first, charging America’s Mayor with having allowed New York to function as a “sanctuary city.”
Following Rudy Giuliani’s defensive response, moderator Anderson Cooper asks the High Priest to weigh in. Naturally, Mitt Romney affirms Ernie’s sentiments, which naturally calls for a rebuttal from Giuliani: “In his case, there were six sanctuary cities. He did nothing about them. There was even a sanctuary mansion. At his own home, illegal immigrants were being employed, not being turned in to anybody or by anyone….”
But that’s only the beginning. For six minutes, Giuliani and Romney, egged on by cheers and laughter from the audience, continue to interrupt each other, exchanging taunts and accusations and casting aside Cooper’s moderation as an afterthought. Around the five minute mark, an affable Southern drawl is heard amid the commotion. “Let us jump in here,” it innocently pleads. It sounds like Mike Huckabee, but it doesn’t matter. He’s just topped the Iowa polls, but he won’t take command of the spotlight until later in the week.
Finally, 40 seconds after Cooper tells Romney that “we’ve got to move on,” Giuliani tries to continue the shit parade but is booed into submission by the crowd in true trash-TV fashion. A second immigration question airs, which Fred Thompson, John McCain, and – yet again – Giuliani weigh in on.
All told, reports MSNBC’s First Read blog, Giuliani speaks 20 times for a total of 16 minutes and 38 seconds. Romney follows close behind with 19 speaking opportunities for a total of 13 minutes and 18 seconds. Huckabee, who doesn’t speak until the 26-minute mark, comes in fifth with 11 opportunities and 10 minutes even; Tom Tancredo, the secure-our-borders hardliner, finishes dead last, speaking seven times for a mere three minutes and 49 seconds. And Ron Paul, whose supporters rule YouTube with an iron fist, remains silent past the first half hour. He eventually speaks nine times for seven minutes and 43 seconds.
The debate, of course, is a rousing success. Nielsen Media Research estimates its viewership at 4.4 million, and the questions unearth enough controversy to keep the pundits happy — Mitt Romney, for instance, fires his landscaping company the following week for employing undocumented workers. Two days later he gives an address on faith in America to allay unease concerning his Mormonism, an underwhelming display that Hardball’s Chris Matthews nevertheless compares to JFK’s famous speech on Catholicism prior to the 1960 presidential election.
Things are just as out of kilter on the Democrats’ side. For a firsthand account, I seek out Chris Dodd during a November 27 campaign stop at Iowa State University.
“I’m doing a piece on the state of media coverage in—” I begin, but he quickly interjects:
“It’s unbelievable, isn’t it?”
Dodd posts a Talk Clock bar graph on his Web site after each Democratic debate that details the final speaking times of each candidate and the moderator. He is a champion of progressive causes, the most recent being his successful Senate-floor filibuster of a bill that would have granted retroactive immunity to telecommunication companies involved in the Bush administration’s illegal eavesdropping program. Still, he flounders in the polls. And, as he knows all too well, low poll rankings do not make for an entertaining debate.
“I could go out and have dinner and come back sometimes before I get the first question at these things,” Dodd tells me. “So it’s not about informing the public. It’s about Nielsen Ratings. It’s about money. They have seven or eight of us up there, but they always focus on the ones who they think are going to keep the viewership rather than informing the public. There are others up there who have a lot more to say and contribute to this debate, but they don’t give us the chance.”
At the November 15 Democratic debate in Las Vegas, according to the Talk Clock, Dodd speaks for seven minutes and 10 seconds, ahead of only Dennis Kucinich, who speaks for five minutes and 37 seconds. Barack Obama comes in first, at 18 minutes and nine seconds. Second is Hillary Clinton, at 15 minutes and 55 seconds. And CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer takes third with 14 minutes and 53 seconds of speaking time. (At a September 26 debate in New Hampshire, MSNBC moderator Tim Russert speaks for 19 minutes and 26 seconds, more than any candidate.)
“They’re hardly debates,” Dodd continues, impassioned. “They’re hardly that. They’re more entertainment. We’ve had no discussion, really, about education yet. We’ve had very limited discussion about the economy of the country. We spent five minutes on UFOs. It’s insulting, really, to the American public and insulting to serious candidates.”
But what defines a serious candidate? Whatever it may be, Democrat Mike Gravel, the loose-cannon former Alaska senator, certainly doesn’t seem to fit the bill. Back when he is still being invited to the debates, he spends much of the meager time allotted to him sharply criticizing his Democratic rivals. It no doubt contributes to the following exchange between John Edwards and Clinton, picked up by a Fox News Channel microphone at the conclusion of a July 12 NAACP debate in Detroit:
“At some point … maybe the fall, we should try to have a more serious and a smaller group,” Edwards says candidly to Clinton.
“Well, we’ve got to cut the number, because they are just being trivialized,” Clinton replies.
“And they’re not serious. They’re not serious.”
“No. You know, I think there was an effort by our campaigns to do that. It got somehow detoured.”
Admittedly, Gravel does come across as free-spirited, if not downright crazy. “Why won’t you let me say what I want to say?” he pleads in a psychedelic YouTube rap video accusing his rivals of jingoism and nepotism. He even makes a guest appearance on the online political satire show Red State Update. Dressed as Santa Claus, he descends down Jackie and Dunlap’s chimney and spikes their holiday punch.
Kooky as Gravel may seem, however, he has some strong credentials, most notably his role in fighting to end the Vietnam War. In 1971, the senator, staging a five-month filibuster to stop the military draft, ultimately contributes to the draft’s demise in 1973. And as chairman of the Subcommittee on Buildings and Grounds, he orders that 4,100 pages of the top secret Pentagon Papers, leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, be inserted into the Congressional Record. In fact, Beacon Press later prints a Senator Gravel Edition of the papers featuring edits and annotation by none other than Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn.
Kucinich is the Democratic Party’s other certifiable nut of a presidential aspirant, the short, goofy kid with the hot new wife. And he wants the vice president impeached. That’s probably about all you’ll gather from the media. But Kucinich’s platform is a progressive’s wet dream, and his calls for impeachment, according to a November 12 American Research Group poll, are supported by 63 percent of Democrats and 43 percent of all voters, for what it’s worth.
Neither Gravel nor Kucinich are invited to their party’s final debate before the Iowa primaries, hosted in Johnston by The Des Moines Register on December 13. The Register, explaining its snubbing of Kucinich, writes in a statement “that a person working out of his home [does] not meet our criteria for a campaign office and full-time paid staff in Iowa.” Gravel, one could assume, is left out for much the same reason.
Exclusions aside, Dodd’s Talk Clock from The Register’s debate shows a marked departure from the unequal time granted in previous debates. Dodd, with 10 minutes and six seconds, speaks the least among the candidates, but only 43 seconds less than Edwards. Bill Richardson claims the most time with 14 minutes and 27 seconds, and moderator and Register editor Carolyn Washburn speaks the least of anyone, for eight minutes and 56 seconds.
The talking heads of cable news are quick to criticize The Register’s debates, both Democratic and Republican, for being too boring and lacking any controversy that might shake up the polls prior to the primaries. And it’s true: Washburn’s icy, authoritarian moderation, along with the dull, policy-based questions and a general lack of interest among the candidates, makes for an event largely devoid of entertainment value, save for Thompson’s wisecracks and Alan Keyes’s lunatic rants on the Republican side of the fence.
“The problem of the media is that they like to think of themselves as the king anointers, and they are going to pick whomever it looks is most likely to win,” John Zambenini, Ron Paul’s Iowa communications coordinator, tells me over the phone a few days after my chat with Dodd.
“By and large, they want to be right come election day, saying, ‘We told you all along. We provided the first fast, accurate coverage that so and so would win the nomination or so and so was the frontrunner,’” he explains. “That’s why they love Hillary, because it’s a bet. They’re making a bet that they will pick the right candidate because they have to sell newspapers. They have to sell air time, so they want to hedge their bets.”
Naturally, for the libertarian Paul campaign the solution lies in the marketplace. The media, Zambenini says, isn’t at the center of the problem. Instead, it’s the challenge of spreading the candidate’s message and building the grassroots, in the process convincing the media that he has something worth saying.
“In my opinion, if broadcasting companies and media outlets are interested in their ratings, then they will give more coverage to someone like Ron Paul, who is a phenomenon,” he says.
A phenomenon Ron Paul certainly is. On December 16, the 234th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, his campaign raises over $6 million, the largest single-day fundraiser in United States history. But what about serious contenders unable to stage the feats that the Paul campaign has executed? Perhaps Paul has now become part of the media carnival that once ignored him. Maybe he’s on to something.
On October 15, 2004, Jon Stewart appears on the now-defunct CNN show Crossfire, where he proceeds to rip hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala a new one over their shoddy coverage of the news. Asked by Carlson if he thinks John Kerry is the most impressive of the Democratic contenders for the presidency, Stewart replies, “I thought Al Sharpton was very impressive. I enjoyed his way of speaking. I think oftentimes the person [who] knows they can’t win is allowed to speak the most freely, because otherwise, shows with titles such as Crossfire or Hardball or I’m Going to Kick Your Ass will jump on [what they say].”
Perhaps the Sharptons and Gravels and Pauls, then, serve as checks on a broken capitalist system. Usually they are no more than novelties, occasionally peeping their heads out among the party frontrunners to offer an outrageous sound byte for the media to jump on. But sometimes their messages catch wind and have a significant influence on political discourse. Insists Zambenini, “Ron Paul is the only person talking a different line, and that’s why his message is so popular.”
For those less convinced of the free market’s ability to solve all ills, clean elections — anathema to libertarians — might even the playing field and allow the lesser-knowns to increase their viability. The clean elections system measures a candidate’s viability by his ability to collect a set number of qualifying contributions — typically five dollars or more — from individual donors. For candidates who can prove their viability, the government will fund their campaigns, provided they receive no private donations, and will provide matching funds so they can keep up with privately-funded candidates.
Amending the FCC’s equal-time rule might also prove beneficial. The rule requires radio and television stations, if they provide free air time to one candidate, to provide equal time to any opposing candidates who request it. But because exceptions are allowed for news interviews, scheduled newscasts, and on-the-spot news events, and because political debates hosted independently of a media outlet qualify as news events, the rule doesn’t do much good. And it allows for the continued exclusion of minor party candidates, who have even less hope of having their voices heard than the Gravels and Kuciniches.
I ask Dodd where he thinks the solution lies.
“We’d probably ought to have [debates] where you’d spend more time on one subject matter … so they could probe you a little bit deeper than some bumper sticker applause line you’ve got lined up,” he begins. “Maybe rotate around so you’d get two or three people and mix it up each week on a single subject matter so you don’t have eight people lined up, where it is very difficult to remember who said what along the way.”
“There are a lot of different ways that this could be done,” he continues. “I actually went to John McCain and said, ‘How about you and I, sitting down one hour every two weeks, you pick a subject and I’ll pick a subject, no moderator, and we’ll have a civil conversation about some of the important issues of the day with our different perspectives.’”
“Would it be aired on television?” I inquire.
“Yeah. But he didn’t want to do it.”
Of course, Dodd’s ideas would require the cooperation of the news media, and he can’t even convince the maverick McCain. Until the unlikely day when the news media is forced to make changes, then, we all might as well accept the inevitable. So microwave yourself some popcorn, kick back, and enjoy the sheer, entertaining absurdity of the corporate-tainted soap opera we’ve all come to know and love as American politics.