Like ill-matched partners in a bad marriage, American politics and American television seem bound inextricably together, unable to escape a relationship that increasingly degrades both partners. Television, “the business of selling audiences to advertisers,” produces programs that at bottom are brightly colored conveyer belts carefully designed to deliver to corporations particular segments of a mass market: Ally McBeal’s success lies in the efficiency with which it delivers the “eyeballs” of young urban females to gaze upon the products of L’Oréal, Monday Night Fooball’s in how many middle-aged male eyeballs it attracts for Budweiser and Chevrolet. Yet American politics, however important its workings may be to the future of the republic, simply does not deliver enough eyeballs. In order to obtain them, politicians, like corporations, are forced to pay, forming a system that has left American television increasingly rich, American politics increasingly corrupt, and American voters increasingly ignorant. Television is the means by which democracy has been absorbed by the market, producing a new hybrid: call it “democracy commodified,” and we have seen its emergence this summer in its purest form yet.
It should have surprised no one that the three broadcast networks, which still account for almost half the television audience, declined to offer viewers more than a bare minimum—scarcely more than one minute in ten—of coverage of the political conventions. “The parties have designed these conventions, both of them, to be marketing tools—not news events, but marketing tools,” declared CBS’s Dan Rather. “And I’m not comfortable with trying to sell the audience on the idea that they are something other than what they are. The argument that somehow we have a ‘moral responsibility’ to carry the political parties’ fogging-machine infomercial—I don’t buy it.”
Rather, at sixty-eight, has covered a great many conventions, including some that offered no important floor fights and no real suspense about who the candidates were to be—that offered, that is, “no news.” Whatever his employer’s supposed “moral responsibility,” he well remembers a time when the networks had a clearly stated legal one, defined originally under the Communications Act of 1934, which obliged broadcasters, on pain of losing their licenses, to serve the “public interest, convenience and necessity.” The airwaves were public property, and if “selling audiences to advertisers” was the rule of the business, Congress carved out an exception, a safe zone in which news and politics and other information deemed essential to the public could flourish protected from competitive pressures.
During the Reagan administration, this exception became in effect a dead letter, sacrificed to the vast expansion of cable television and the deregulation of the communications industry that came with it. The Clinton years brought not its restoration but further growth and concentration in what we have come to call “the media,” leaving all of television, network and cable, concentrated in the hands of a half-dozen multinational corporations whose executives feel responsibility only to earn higher profits for their shareholders. For all Mr. Rather’s complaints about the political parties’ use of their conventions…
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