After the first forty minutes of last night's Democratic debate, it was clear we were watching something historic. Not historic in a good way, mind you, but historic in the sense of being something so deeply embarrassing to the nation that it will be pointed to, in future books and documentary works, as a prime example of the collapse of the American media into utter and complete substanceless, into self-celebrated vapidity, and into a now-complete inability or unwillingness to cover the most important affairs of the nation to any but the most shallow of depths.
Congratulations are clearly in order. ABC had two hours of access to two of the three remaining candidates vying to lead the most powerful nation in the world, and spent the decided majority of that time mining what the press considers the true issues facing the republic. Bittergate; Rev. Wright; Bosnia; American flag lapel pins. That's what's important to the future of the country.
What a contrast. Only a few weeks ago, we were presented with what was considered by many to be a historic speech by a presidential candidate on race in America -- historic for its substance, tone, delivery, and stark candor. Last night, we had an opposing, equally historic example -- and I sincerely mean that, I consider it to be every bit as significant as that word implies -- of the collapse of the political press into self-willed incompetence. You might as well pull any half-intelligent person off the street, and they would unquestionably have more difficult and significant questions for the two candidates. It was not merely a momentarily bad performance, by ABC, it was a debate explicitly designed to be what it was, which is far more telling.
It is certainly true that a case could be made that the moderators explicitly set out to frame even the supposedly "substantive" questions according to GOP designs. The implicit presumption of success in Iraq when, nearly an hour into the debate, the moderators finally deigned to mention the defining current event of this campaign. Gibson, as moderator, lied outright about the supposed effects of capital gains tax cuts, and dogged the candidates over it to a greater extent than any other economic issue: does he really believe that of all the economic challenges facing this nation, the most pressing of them is supplication towards a decade-long Republican bugaboo? Gun control? Affirmative action? These are the issues that are most compellingly on the minds of Democratic primary voters, in 2008? Or were the questions taken from a 1992 time capsule, insightful probes gathering dust for a decade and a half until they could find network moderators desperate enough to dig them up again?
But even slanted questions could be forgiven, of the press; what was more inexplicable was the intentional wallowing in substanceless, meaningless "gaffe" politics. It says something truly impressive about the press that a few statements by a presidential candidate's preacher bear far more weight to the future of our nation than the challenges of terrorism or war. It is truly a celebration of our own national collapse into idiocracy that we can furrow our brows and question the patriotism of a candidate, deeply probe their patriotism based on whether or not they regularly don a made-in-China American flag pin, but a substantive discussion of energy policy, or healthcare, or the deficit, or the housing crisis, or global climate change, or the government approval of torture, or trade issues, or the plight of one-industry small American towns, or the fight over domestic espionage and FISA, or the makeup of the Supreme Court -- those were of no significance, in comparison.
If a media organization set out to intentionally demonstrate themselves to be self absorbed and ignorant, they could not have accomplished it better. It was not just a tabloid debate, but the tittering of political kindergardeners making and lobbing mud pies. It was politics as game show. The moderators demonstrated that to them and their supposed "news" organization, the presidency of the United States of America is about the trivialities of_politics_, which were obsessed over ravenously, not about the challenges of American governance, which were fully ignored.
Certainly, as mere citizens we could ask little of the network that unapologetically brought us The Path to 9/11, a fabricated conservative pseudo-documentary laying the blame for terrorism at the feet of everyone loathed by the far right. But it is not simply ABC that bears the blame: surely, one could expect similar drivel from any of the other networks or cable channels who have so successfully and self-importantly dimmed the national discourse, these past ten years. For his part, the chairman of the written intellectual wisp, the New York Times' David Brooks, marveled at the "excellent" questions:
We may not like it, but issues like Jeremiah Wright, flag lapels and the Tuzla airport will be important in the fall. Remember how George H.W. Bush toured flag factories to expose Michael Dukakis. It’s legitimate to see how the candidates will respond to these sorts of symbolic issues.
Indeed, how dare his peon readers whine about these things: this is how the political game is expected to be played by the grand masters of our discourse. Symbolic tours of flag factories! Checkmate! That is the elite idea of "issues" in our national debate. Piss on the war, and screw the economy -- somebody find a goddamn flag factory to tour! That is how our most elite media figures like to see political opponents "exposed" as... well, what exactly? What does touring a flag factory prove, other than the media in this country is so astonishingly gullible, tin-headed and shallow that you can actually tour a damn flag factory and get praised for it by our idiot press as being a bold, disarming move against your opponent?
Truly, we have become a nation led by the most lazy and ignorant. It seems impossible to mock or satirize just how shallowly the media considers the actual world ramifications of each election, how glancingly they explore the actual truth behind political assertion or rhetoric, or how gleefully they molest our discourse while praising themselves for those selfsame acts. And that, in turn, is precisely how we elected our current Idiot Boy King, a man who has the eloquent demeanor of a month-old Christmas tree and the nuance of a Saturday morning cartoon.
It seems impossible, but we may yet have an election season in which we can be in a slogging, five-year-long war, and mention the fact only in glancing asides. We may yet have a series of Republican-Democratic debates in which the most pressing issues of the economy are entirely ignored, so that we can more adequately explore the "patriotism" of the candidates as expressed by their clothing. We may have yet another campaign season carefully orchestrated to leave all but the most glancing and hollow of themes untouched, while our press achieves multiple orgasms at every botched line, every refused cup of coffee, every peddled character assassination or character assassination-by-proxy peddled by the sleaziest of paid dregs. A campaign, in other words, perfectly suited to the bereft, rudderless, and substanceless self-pronounced guardians of our democracy.
Perhaps, if nothing else, it is time to take back the debate process and insist once again on moderators chosen for competence, expertise and neutrality, rather than network or cable network fame. The elites of our press have managed to botch the task time and time again; perhaps it should be left to someone with an actual interest in doing the job.
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