“When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there for a day without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.” Newton N. Minnow May 9th, 1961.
The quote was from Newton to the National Association of Broadcasters when he was the FCC Chair. Over the past 57 years there’s been much debate over the context and meaning of this quote. The consensus was that this was a rebuke against commercial television playing to the more mundane and less sophisticated urges of Americans for simple entertainment. Not substantive debate, examination of societal problems, informing Americans of the realities of life, just entertainment.
Over the years there has been excellent television and of course poor television. However it comes as no surprise that the goal of television is to make profit. Best way is to get advertisers for commercial television, subscribers to cable and internet shows and rake in the money for airing shows that entertain the public. We all know that over the years, news has more and more become infotainment as Randi Rhodes would tell us. Reality bores, upsets, and infuriates viewers. Fewer and fewer people want to watch it. So to get advertisers news programs more and more have incorporated tabloid news, focus on conflict among people and ideology that once was part of fiction, the things we once only read about in books, magazines or seen in movies. The things that were borrowed from the popular fiction aired on television to get people interested in the news.
Now here’s the possible impact of this phenomena in today’s world, some political leaders knowing what entertain Americans begin to incorporate the fictional storylines into governance. To maintain power they must be popular and to be popular they must be entertaining.
Only recently have I began watching House of Cards after finally after all these years subscribing to Netflix. I enjoy news, I enjoy investigative journalism, but I also enjoy good fiction. Like many Americans I enjoy the “Anti Hero” the person who really isn’t Lily White and pure and gets things done that harms others. Although a villain in the show (and as it turned out in real life) the Kevin Spacey character of Frank Underwood was fascinating. He’s a corrupt, vile, self-centered monstered who murdered his way to the top and kept power. People like this kind of character.
However there’s something that true about enjoying these types of characters, its fiction. Despite what they do on the screen, no one gets hurt, no one gets devastated financially or emotionally, no one dies. We know that watching it so we don’t feel any real sense of guilt for enjoying it. However, what if a politician begins to do such “anti-hero” activities openly for all to see?
Donald J. Trump is admittedly an entertainer. He was a so-so real estate mogul and businessman who never successfully managed anything on his own. He has been constantly bailed our financially by others for his horrendous errors in the real world. However, he manufactured a persona that was a deceit about how successful he was and how he got things done. He entertained people with a book “Art of the Deal” (actually written by somebody else mind you) that talked about manipulating and conning partners, governments and people to be successful. He had his reality show “The Apprentice” (which in reality was stolen from a British reality show) where he honed his entertainment skills. Like most entertainers, what you saw was scripted to gain viewership. Becoming popular and already being narcissistic, he began to air his political views on news programs who gave this man airtime for their ratings, not for the substance of his positions that often changed with the times and television viewers tastes. Trump was a self-described Democrat who once espoused progressive ideas like free choice, government assistance, gun control, etc. only to change to being a self-described conservative republican espousing their views. In reality (as has been pointed out numerous times) Trump has no true ideology beyond himself. He contradicts himself on key issues three or more times in just one sitting. The recent brouhaha over his Helsinki Summit and the interviews afterwards show this to be true.
So here’s the problem, television viewers are less and less able or willing to distinguish entertaining fiction from reality. I wonder if the Trump base actually realize or care that Trump’s actions, unlike say Frank Underwood has actual consequences in the real world and to themselves. Economic security suffers for millions, wars break out, people get hurt, and people die. Trump’s actions have real consequences felt by real people, not storylines that only impact other fictional characters. Reality is a bitch with is why the Trump Administration pushes an alternative reality based on fiction because they know he does better in fiction, than reality. We need to step back and realize this fact and work to make the real world safer and more prosperous for real people, not just sit back and be entertain fooling ourselves that “no one really get’s hurt”.