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August 1, 2004 - What to do with the apolitical majority...

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Anne Applebaum had a long, meandering column in the Post this week that finally gets to the core issue with these political conventions.  No one cares.

The Politicized And the Apolitical
Anne Applebaum, The Washington Post, Wednesday, July 28, 2004; Page A19

Here’s the key nugget -


But simply by virtue of being in Boston, the delegates to this convention and the Republican convention next month in New York really are oddballs. Not only do they know which party the president belongs to, they also know what his party, and their party, are supposed to stand for. And not only that, they feel very strongly about it. What they cannot seem to do is transmit those strong feelings to the rest of the country, and, in particular, to the sort of person who isn't quite sure whether the president is a Democrat or a Republican. Much is made of how "radical" delegates, left or right, find it difficult to appeal to "moderates" in the rest of the country. But the far knottier problem is how the politicized can appeal to the apolitical. Offstage, a frequent theme of Democratic officials here is the knotty question of how to "break through," how to "get out the message" about the budget deficit, or the remoter fields of foreign policy. One Kerry policy aide said they'd been talking about maybe spending less time with the "coastal" media, the Washington/New York/Los Angeles reporters, and concentrating harder on those places in between, where news coverage was a lot slimmer. Another wistfully reminisced about the time in 1992 when "two out of three networks" carried news of then-candidate Bill Clinton's manufacturing policy. Ah, those halcyon days.

Onstage, as at most recent conventions, the solution has been to make the proceedings look like something else. Old-timers always complain that "nothing happens" at conventions, but something is happening: A bunch of unusually politically motivated people have come together to present their candidate and his policies to the rest of the country -- and why not? Yet, instead of portraying that reality, the convention -- or at least, again, the parts on TV -- is at times made to seem like a rock concert, with cheering groupies, loud music and even cigarette lighters in the dark. At other times, it is made to look like a late-night talk show. Speakers walk on stage to a blast of canned music -- "New York State of Mind" for Hillary, "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow" for Bill -- and often get a Hollywood hug from the presenter, who is Glenn Close or someone of her ilk. At still other times, it feels like a one-sided sporting event, with chanting and a scoreboard-style video screen showing individual members of the crowd, who scream and wave when they see themselves screaming and waving.

It's a formula that may have outlived its usefulness.


I think she has it right.  There are passionate conservatives who will appear in New York next month in support of endless war, occupation of uppity foreign nations and a Christian theocracy now.  And the folks in Boston are equally passionate for “social justice” and all the rest.  But a whole lot of folks are just going to work and taking care of the kids and don’t care much one way or the other.

The conventions are not for them – but whether Scott Peterson or Michael Jackson or Kobe Bryant goes to jail is for them.  A just what will Martha Stewart be doing with her time in that minimum security Federal Prison?

Tim Rutten has a piece in the Los Angeles Times that touches on some of this.  His issue is with how the media feed this apolitical world in which we live.  The big three networks - ABC, a Disney property, CBS, which belongs to Viacom, and NBC, a division of General Electric – are hardly covering the Boston convention at all.  And the New York convention will be much that same in late August.  He attributes this to, on their part, a “growing inability to distinguish between the public's interest — fascination with entertainment and celebrity — and the public interest — a deference to the common good.”

Maybe so.

What about serving the public interest?


… Unlike newspapers, magazines or cable channels, the networks — and all local television stations, for that matter — transmit their signals over airwaves owned by the people of the United States. Their licenses, in fact, require them to operate in the public interest. In recent years, timid federal regulators have more or less construed that requirement as a tedious formality. But it remains on the books, and flouting it in so flagrant a fashion is, at the very least, in poor taste. Taste, as we know, is very much on the networks' minds these days, though the corporate conscience … does not extend to questions of responsibility.


But these are corporate entities.  They make money on – and their survival depends upon – giving people what they want, so they can insert commercial advertisements in whatever it is they want, and thus be able to continue to do what it is they do, at a reasonable profit.

Skipping the political is the only choice.

Those who care about such things are the oddballs, or at least they are not the demographic that will have advertisers bidding furiously for thirty-second spots for their products.  Those who may want to hear what Al Sharpton has to say Wednesday night are not the kind of folks who are going to plunk down 105,000 dollars for one of the many pristine, new Hummer H1 beauties that are cluttering dealerships across America.  No one is buying those much these days.  And this is about moving the product.

So, if most folks have a fascination with entertainment and celebrity, shows of such is where you spend your advertising budget.  And you don’t tell corporations to take a loss for the public interest and try to sell airtime for something folks are just not watching.  That makes no sense.  And thus you air shows that make enough money to keep your network viable.

That’s just the way it is.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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