What Americans Really Need
To be more informed and less entertained
Robert Kennedy once allegedly commented that Americans are not well informed, but they are highly entertained. He had no idea how right he was. He died long before the internet, social media, and — perhaps most significant — reality television. Whatever condition he might have detected was certainly trivial compared to what we have today.
Today, what passes for news is not necessarily news — researched, reviewed, and screened by curious editors and cautious attorneys. Rather it is more than likely to be fact-free opinions and observations by those getting their information from organizations and sources having few if any editorial filters.
It all started long ago but has been accelerating in contemporary times. Former Under Secretary of State and U.N. Ambassador George Ball was a senior member of Governor Adlai Stevenson’s two campaigns for president, in 1952 and again in 1956. In his 1982 memoir, The Past Has Another Pattern, Ball recounted that the 1952 campaign was one where the two candidates, Governor Stevenson and retired General Dwight Eisenhower, strenuously debated policy positions. Eisenhower won, but Ball related that all involved in the Stevenson campaign were proud of the effort they had made, especially in developing policy positions they believed were “sounder” and “far more eloquently expressed” than Eisenhower’s.
However, by 1956 television had come to the fore. Neither Stevenson nor Eisenhower were telegenic or colorful, and the attention span of American voters began to shrink as messages and positions were distilled into short 30-second sound bites rather than half-hour speeches.
When that campaign ended, Ball commented that a trend had been established suggesting that in the future, candidates would have to be professional actors. Referring to Ronald Reagan, the president at the time of his memoirs, he noted that, “I did not know how presciently I spoke.” And Ball lamented that politics was descending to an endeavor “measured more by personality than substance.”
The trend has, of course, continued, expanded, and accelerated. Perhaps a key moment occurred in 1977 when ABC named Roone Arledge, then the president of ABC Sports and the inspiration of many of the modern techniques for presenting sports events (and the originator of “Monday Night Football”), to also serve as the president of ABC News. In other words, Arledge began overseeing both sports and news, two portfolios that he retained until 1986. Perhaps unnoticed at the moment, this started a trend where entertainment became news and news became entertainment.
During the Obama administration, when Entertainment Tonight was doing well as a CBS Media broadcast, I tuned in one night to see that the lead story was what Michelle Obama was wearing at a state dinner at the White House. A state dinner is not entertainment. One could make an argument that it might be if the guest list was heavy on Hollywood, which it wasn’t. But this showed the trend was firmly set.
The suspension of belief is the world of entertainment. It is entertaining, and fun, to attend a movie and see a massive intergalactic clash between Jedi warriors and the evil forces and figures of the “Empire.” The Harry Potter series is also great entertainment, but wizards — both young and old — we hopefully understand do not exist outside the movie theater. But we have slowly descended into a world where information and entertainment have merged to a disturbing extent, and far too few people seem capable of distinguishing the difference — or are even interested in doing so.
And if television was the original propellant, it has now been joined by things far more powerful and influential: social media and “Reality TV.”
Of the two, reality TV is arguably the worst. A year or so before he died, television legend Johnny Carson described it as the most damaging thing that had afflicted his industry. In his view, it had provided a cheap form of entertainment devoid of scripts, logic, or creative content. No one is going to die on a desert island, he noted; after all, it was all being filmed by a union crew and there were “coffee and doughnuts” on the table behind the camera.
On social media, an older colleague of mine seemed to enjoy sending me stories that he often introduced with the phrase, “You won’t be seeing this in the mainstream media.” My normal response was that he was correct. You would not be seeing it in the mainstream media because it had a fatal flaw: it wasn’t true. In one of our more memorable exchanges, he had sent me an article from some dubious source stating that former President Barack Obama had submitted plans for a $130 million mausoleum to be built — at taxpayer expense — next to the Washington Monument, which would serve as the final resting place for Obama and his family. The article even came with a sketch of the fictional complex. I pointed out the numerous things that made the article fully fallacious. “I don’t care,” he replied. “It reflects how I feel.”
The illogic of that is little short of stunning. Like many, regarding many topics, my old colleague was essentially saying he was fully open to comments about someone he did not like even though he knew they were false. The “alternative facts” of Kellyann Conway are one thing, but at least that construct seemingly attempted to depict actual facts in a different — shall we say slanted — way. Accepting, perpetuating, and even defending assertions and claims that are demonstrably false is something else altogether.
The recent primary results selecting candidates for the November election show that George Ball’s trend continues, arithmetically and perhaps even exponentially. In Pennsylvania, the Democratic nominee for the senate is John Fetterman, certainly a colorful figure, who may face TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz in the November election. Fetterman, at least, has been the Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania; Oz has no previous government experience, yet he ran neck-in-neck in the Republican primary with David McCormick, a hedge fund manager and former Treasury Department official. Presumably, November will be a contest to determine which candidate is the more entertaining.
The primary results showed in North Carolina that Congressman Madison Cawthorn lost his bid for re-election, but by a mere two percentage points. Cawthorn, elected at twenty-five years of age, never had anything to recommend him for the job, and was only noted for his (shall we generously say) colorful antics and accusations. Some reports indicate that in office he never even hired any legislative aides, filling his staff with “communications” people. The efforts at entertainment rather than substance would relate equally well to Cawthorn’s House colleagues Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz. They likely apply in great degree to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who at least attempts to appear serious if rarely substantive.
Government is not entertainment. Entertaining accusations are rarely the basis for sound governmental policy any more than medical advice from a radio personality should be taken as the basis for treatment. Just as “something that is too good to be true” normally isn’t true, simplistic applause lines regarding complex issues are just that — simplistic applause lines.
Americans today have ample avenues for entertainment; they should avail themselves of them. But they also have ample avenues for being informed, and separating the fact from the fiction is not overly challenging. They need to understand that suspending reality regarding serious public issues does not improve the actual reality of their lives.