Friday, November 09, 2012

Good News…Bad News

I was, of course, delighted and relieved that President Obama was re-elected and the Democrats maintain the majority in the Senate.  I’m wary but hopeful that Republicans, at least some, recognize the major changes in American demographics and attitudes and understand that if their party is to remain viable, they have no choice but to reject the far-right-as-you-can-go fringe and move more to a workable center in order to actually help run the country – which they can now do, since they failed to achieve their primary objective: making Barack Obama a one-term president.  I was also very pleased that both marriage equality and the decriminalization of marijuana made strides in a few states.  All of this is good news.

But, now that the nation has managed to suffer through this seemingly-endless campaign, there is a considerable amount of bad news to contemplate and correct  – and some of it isn’t “news,” just situations, some fairly recent and others that have been with us for quite a long time.

Let’s begin with the length and cost of this election: two years and $4.2 billion.  The rest of the Democratic World (yes, Virginia, there are over 170 democratic countries) manage to hold elections in just six months to a year.  Why can’t we?  They also manage to not spend billions of dollars or euros or whatever currency they use, and the funds raised aren’t largely comprised of “dark money” (unidentified individual and corporate donors) in massive Super Pacs.  These two situations alone hugely undermine the truth/reality of our democracy, let alone its ability to function.  The fact that more than half the country didn’t vote at all is directly tied to these two factors.

The lack of voting can also be attributed to political cynicism and fatigue on the part of the citizenry; the inability of the two parties to agree on facts – which are different from opinions and perceived solutions to problems big and small; the willingness of both parties to fight dirty and outright lie; the hugely disparate methods of voting, from registration to voting to counting the votes; the outrageously blatant voter suppression that went on during this election cycle; the distinction of “important, battleground states” that make many people in and outside those states feel that their votes are meaningless; and, most of all, the existence of the long-outmoded Electoral College.  These issues pose a valid question: given these factors, why should anyone feel obliged to take an active interest in politics, let alone leave the comfort of home to go out and vote?

Last but most assuredly not least is the media – from daily television news coverage to the “debates” to coverage of the results on Election Day.  Let me take these issues in reverse order.

When I was a kid and then a young voter, there was such a thing as “No electioneering near the polls.”  You couldn’t even enter a voting station wearing a political button.  Then, the three major broadcast TV networks (which was all we had) didn’t begin coverage of the results until the West Coast had largely closed its polls.  These practices were designed to not influence voters on Election Day itself and they were sacrosanct.

In this day and age, however, we have 24/7 news channels: three majors (Left, Right and Center) and a few minors.  Their Election Day coverage began at the crack of dawn on Tuesday, which amounts to electronic electioneering near the polls.  This isn’t good; this isn’t right.  We also have legitimate news sources as well as blogs and social media on the (relatively) new-fangled Internet, which operates on its own 24/7 spectrum in the space-time continuum and is governed and controlled by nothing and nobody.  Sounds great in theory, but a lot of Internet power is in the hands of irresponsible, disreputable and self-serving persons and groups.  What can be done about this?  Lastly, we have polls and pundits.  Polls and pundits are nothing new, but we now have a monumental number of them, some of them credible, others not.  Combined, they contribute to the divisiveness and dullness of political information, not to mention a serious blurring of factual news and both informed and uninformed opinion.

As a result of all this, we have daily news coverage that can frequently rot the brain the way sugar causes cavities.  News outlets spend more time on gaffes,  scandals, taking things out of context, and on the political horserace than they do on major issues.  Right now, before President Obama has even been re-inaugurated, much of the media are speculating about the horse races of 2014 and 2016.  This does not help politics or elections seem meaningful; it’s like sport for news/political junkies.  I totally ignore major/minor league athletics because they bore and annoy me.  With this kind of political coverage, why should many citizens feel differently about politics?  Then there are the debates the media moderate and broadcast.  These might be helpful if they truly covered all the important issues of the day.  But they don’t.  They’re rigid, limited and vary in format in a way that does nothing to help bring issues to the fore.  Is this any way to run a railroad?

If indeed America is to remain a democracy and if we’re going to continue to have elections big and small that actually mean something, then we must (no ifs, ands or buts) reform election law from financing to process.  And if we’re going to continue to have 24-hour news cycles (and that’s not likely to change) on TV and online, modern journalism must honestly re-assess its strengths and weaknesses and how they use their time.  Currently, public television (which those who apparently don’t watch it seem to think consists largely of children’s programming; so not true!) and C-SPAN are the only outlets I’m aware of that routinely produce and air a diversity of documentaries and panel discussions on major political issues, both fiscal and social, on a regular, ongoing basis.

So, while I’m glad my guy won, I’m definitely not a happy camper about the dysfunction of political contests and the media that cover them.  Once we manage to not fall off the fiscal cliff that is currently of serious concern, I hope our leaders and our media will make the time to examine and clean up their acts.

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