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Saturday, August 7, 2010

The muck starts here.

At first, this was going to be a little rant on Sarah Palin’s reaction to the Prop 8 decision, then I found out she’ll now have her own reality series starting in November with Kate Gosselin guesting on the first episode. That pop cultural armageddon aside, this now totally opens the discussion up to several issues, the least of which is how politicians use media to game the system, and what, if any, are the lines anymore?

It’s no surprise what her response to Prop 8 on Fox was. Wasilla knows how she really feels on the issue, and the rest of the country knew from the vice-presidential debates. It’s this idea however that the will of millions of people is being trumped by one judge (a Reagan nomination and subsequent Bush Sr. appointee—delicious irony, that.) That flawed argument assumes cases affecting millions of people are never brought before one judge.

Understand what’s really going on with Momma Grizzly though.

Team GOP has shifted away from Joe the Plumber to framing the narrative as an assault on The Constitution™ and God. When votes on certain issues go their way, it’s a case of the voters have spoken—when they don’t, it’s an assault on the very freedoms the framers fought to bring us. By extension then, anyone disagreeing must hate this country.

Politics ain’t pretty man.

That may be great at creating animal kingdom sound bites which summon the ghosts of Thomas Jefferson, but it glosses over something politicians count on: Yes we’re majority rule, yes, often times *millions* of people speak out, and yes, we’re still a divided country.

But we’re also apathetic.

Since 1960, the average voter turnout for presidential elections averages 55%. Margin of victory in those elections? 7.2 million votes, or the population of Virginia, give or take. (Since 1988, that figure drops to 5.5 million.) Worldwide? Factoring out those countries where compulsory voting is enforced, we still rank in the middle of the pack.*

The off-year elections which control the Senate and House? Even worse. Drop those figures by another 15%. So in other words, just one-third of this country’s eligible voters decide who represents them. Did someone say minority rule?

Uncle Ted was right. You get who you don’t show up to vote for.

The candidate who wins now is largely dependent not just on their donor network, but whoever feels like turning out that day to vote. Any doubt that politics is less about governing and more about winning elections?

To that end, Palin’s doing exactly what Gore should’ve been doing at this point in his post-election haze by staying in the public eye. She’s the former coach who takes a year off to go on ESPN and do commentary, maybe even dismissing talk of coaching gigs with new teams. Her current play by play breakdown can be seen nightly on Hannity’s show as a special contributor to Fox.

Staying in the game also includes showing up at some Tea Party rallies, helping out GOP candidates for 2010 with their respective state fights, and as mentioned, being positioned as a normal family come fall, just like you and me.

While it’s more like the version 3.0 update of Bill Clinton’s sax on Arsenio, it also raises the bigger issue of media impartiality.

For the past 15 years or so, political talk media and its punditry has elevated muckraking to new lows while crossing journalistic lines. That sentiment is the product of my listening to a variety of voices on cable TV and drivetime talk radio. From 6:00 AM to midnite, I know the lineup of 77 WABC by heart.

On the left, I get snark posing as political commentary.

On the right, I get cherrypicked facts taken out of context.

It’s both telling and sad that I have to frame it this way, but depending on which party affiliation a given media outlet or network skews toward, candidates and elected officials who appear on most shows now can expect either softball questions or confrontational segments that would make Jerry Springer jealous.

Fair and balanced, party of none, your table is ready.

Forget campaign finance, we need media reform. Not that it can be enforced. The FCC stands behind the First Amendment and labels political speech as free speech. They’ve addressed this concern specifically. In cases where there is direct evidence that a station intentionally skewed the news, they can act.

In other words, it’s a free speech Wild West.

When it comes to equal time for candidates, there’s still wiggle room to skirt the definition of just what makes a bona fide news outlet (as defined by the Equal Opportunities provision of the Communications Act). To this point, I listen to candidates come on solo and then disparage the voting records of both their opponent and their party, but since it’s an *opinion* show, they can get away with it.

There are other things going on which make you wonder if it’s ever possible to get accurate coverage. Fox complains about an Obama administration shut off to the press, yet Bush invited leading conservative talk personalities to a private forum at the White House. A sitting president goes on the Yenta-fest known as The View but doesn’t answer one serious question about the Gulf, because well, one wasn’t asked.

Pick a show and I can come up with these scenarios all day.

I understand the notion of getting involved and political activism; that’s what this country is based on. (Well, that and taking what we want by force.) What bugs me about this though is the idea that political talk media uses its reach and voice to sway the outcome while masquerading as a credible news outlet, one that is desperate to be taken seriously only when it’s expedient for them to do so.

How can you have it both ways?

Media needs to be trusted in its primary role of being this impartial set of checks and balances—not one that swings elections or shouts the other side down. Is going on Leno, blowing the sax on Arsenio, or having your own reality series that shows a more human side of you such a bad thing? No, at least not in the sense that those shows were never the forum to hold a candidate’s feet to the fire over serious issues.

But what this PR play does little by little, is erode that separation between church and state, politics and entertainment, journalism and objectivity.

Real media doesn’t sit there and complain about bias in its industry while also promoting candidates trying to further their own agendas. The notion of giving voice to the common man’s views that are largely ignored by the enormous mainstream media, if that ever was a goal, is an honorable and necessary one.

Except, I’m not seeing it.

You can cite a new generation of man in the street iReporters covering events all you want, but reporters from CNN to your local news regularly interject their personal views into stories.

We’re paying future presidential candidates to go on nightly news segments and give views on where they stand. In effect, they’re getting free ads that aside from issues of slander, don’t fall under any regulation—all the while hiding behind an opt-ed label.

Current poll numbers aside, we expect more of media and politicians than that. Least we used to.

*Even enforced compulsory voting doesn’t guarantee 100% turnout. Turnout in Australia generally hovers around 95%.

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