From Tet to Trump: A Media History

From Tet to Trump: A Media History

I believe in journalism. I'm thankful for its truth-telling, spot-lighting potential (see last year's Oscar-winning film Spotlightfor example). But I sometimes fear for its future. As the media landscape continues to morph, what role can real journalism play? Donald Trump becoming president is certainly huge "news," but it's a headline that signals something foreboding rather than electrifying about the state of the news industry. Here's my attempt to make sense of how we got here. 1960s:

Yes, the Election is a Dumpster Fire. But Vote Anyway.

Yes, the Election is a Dumpster Fire. But Vote Anyway.

We're now less than a month away from the 2016 U.S. election on November 8. While the presidential race continues its dumpster fire downward spiral and very few people are excited at the prospect of either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump occupying the White House, the fact is the election is still happening and it will decide a lot more things than just the presidency.  When it comes to our options for president, I'm with Russell Moore when he says: "I’m pro-life, pro-family, pro-racial reconciliation, pro-immigrant and pro-character in office, so no matter what happens in November, I lose."

In Memory of Chris Mitchell

In Memory of Chris Mitchell

Perhaps it is fitting that it was in a London hotel room on July 11 that I first received the news of Chris's passing. I couldn't believe the e-mail I was reading. I couldn't believe that I would never see Chris again. Just a few weeks earlier I had passed Chris on the campus of Biola and we'd made plans to get dinner this summer with our wives, as we'd done once before since he and Julie moved out to California last year. I couldn't believe that, just like that, he was gone.

New York Cares

New York Cares

Perhaps moreso than other cities, New York has that peculiar combination of crowded connectedness and desolate urban isolation. On one hand the city cares and accepts all people and all dreams; on the other, it is an impenetrable, callous machine of industry and ambition. On 9/11 both faces merged as the city in all of its seething terror and magnificence forever changed. Before that day, NYC was the incomprehensible nexus of the world. But after that day, NYC was forced to consider the truth of its mythos: that it is still just a city, vulnerable and imperfect as anything else.

New Mediascape Website!

For those who don't know, I have been the editor in chief of the scholarly e-journal, Mediascape, for the past year. It's UCLA's graduate journal of cinema and media studies, and it publishes once a year in online-only format. We've been hard at work these past months rebuilding our website and getting our new issue together. I'm proud to announce that it is finally done, and I urge you to take a look at it here:

The pseudo-theme of this issue is comedy, and we have some interesting articles about The Darjeeling Limited, Vince Vaughn, frat-pack movies, multi-camera sitcoms & How I Met Your Mother, Jewishness and comedy, Brothers and Sisters, and Jon Stewart... among many others.

If you like scholarly approaches to film/media/pop culture, check out these articles. They're quite interesting and I'm proud of our staff for putting together such a strong journal issue.

Politics of Spectacle

I was watching something on Fox this week and was struck by some of the ads I saw for the Super Bowl. The ads were advertising that a full day of coverage on Super Sunday would begin with a morning of Fox News political coverage on “the other big contest” going on: the presidential election. Following this would be the main event: the Patriots vs. Giants. The ad seemed to suggest that together it was a day of utter and extreme Americanisms: our “two favorite pastimes: sports and politics.” Pull up a chair, get some beer and pizza, and revel in the spectacles of debate and conflict and fighting and smash-em-up democracy!

There are many things wrong with this framing discourse of “Super Sunday” (not least of which is the obvious untruth that Americans care as much about politics as we do about sports!), but the thing that most disturbs me is this equivocation of our electoral process with something as airy and insignificant and superfluous as the Super Bowl. Are we seriously trying to say that the current presidential election is mass entertainment? A spectacle?

Unfortunately, this is not really a new trend. For decades now, American media have been turning politics into a spectacle—a three ring circus of strategy, intrigue, danger, rousing victories and epic defeats. Turn on cable news on any given night and you get some grade-A melodrama posing as political discourse.

Exhibit A of the spectacle-ization of American politics happened on Thursday night in (the very appropriate location of) Hollywood. It was the Democratic debate on CNN—live from the Kodak theater (aka the home of the Oscars and nexus of all that Hollywood represents). Did anyone watch this debate? First of all, it was hardly a debate. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were as chummy as any two competing politicians have ever been. There was very little actual debate and even less clarification for the voters.

But it was compelling TV! It was a spectacle! And boy did the stars turn out in force to drive home that point… Every time the camera panned to the audience it focused on another celebrity’s face. Liberal stalwarts Steven Spielberg and Rob Reiner were there, along with familiar faces like Diane Keaton (in her Charlie Chaplin/Annie Hall getup), Stevie Wonder (stood up and cheered a lot), and Pierce Brosnan (wait—can he even vote? Isn’t he British?). But what can explain the presence of Brandy? Or Topher Grace? Or the guy who plays Andy on The Office? What are they doing here? To give CNN the glitz and glamour that Anderson Cooper and Angelina Jolie have tried so hard to achieve?

In any case, it was funny to watch the reaction shots of various B celebrities whenever Obama or Clinton said something about how ridiculously awful George W. Bush has been. It’s almost a Pavlovian instinct for many of them, I think: “Bush ruins everything”=clap and cheer! (because who wants to cheer for boring and complex solutions to issues like healthcare and social security?). It’s much more fun and gleefully vague to “cheer for change”!

Indeed. What fun this all is! There should be an “Election 2008” reality show or something. Ryan Seacrest could host it and every night millions could call in and vote on how well each candidate looked and performed during whatever debate or speech had just happened. It would be a ratings hit for whatever channel it was on, and doubtless way more people would get “excited” about our electoral process (as long as we could text in our vote). And then perhaps one day ads during Super Tuesday will sell for just as much as on Super Sunday. A Super Week of consumerist pop-hedonism/politics! Totally win win.

Primary Concern

It seems like this should have happened by now, but this Thursday (Jan 3) is the first actual vote in the presidential primary race. For months now (years, in the case of some), the candidates have been darting around America desperately seeking support and momentum for their campaigns. Of course, when I say “America,” I really mean Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and a handful of other states that have somehow secured the earliest caucuses and primaries. If you’re lucky enough (or unlucky enough, depending on your view) to be a resident in one of these states, congratulations: you have the power to speak for the rest of the country in choosing the nominees for Commander-in-Chief.

The Iowa Caucus has been the first major electoral step in the president-nominating process since 1972, transforming the state from humble cornfield country to the dominant locus of electioneering every four years. Whoever wins the Iowa Caucus (in which only a few hundred thousand people participate) automatically becomes the favorite to win the nomination, because, well, I’m not sure why…

Actually I do know why. The race for the president is increasingly a game of “predicting and projecting” winners and losers. And as soon as the media (and by extension the voting public) gets wind of who is or might be a “winner,” that candidate becomes the person to beat. For lack of anything else to influence one’s decision, voting for a perceived “winner” is increasingly the method of most voters.

So what’s so wrong with this “voting for a winner” method? Well, if you have a mind for strategy and pragmatism, then nothing. But if everyone is voting for a candidate because they think he/she has the best chance of winning and not necessarily because they view them as the superior candidate, then something has gone a bit haywire with the democratic process. We fool ourselves by thinking that a candidate’s ability to win an election has little to do with our personal attraction to them as an appealing candidate. It has everything to do with it.

If everyone voted with their gut for the candidate they really wanted to win (even if he or she were last in the straw polls or had little media coverage), then that candidate would have a chance to win the election. It’s like the “Spiral of Silence” theory of communication: When there is some perceived dominant opinion being offered (in this case, the media’s crowning of “top tier candidates”), those inclined against this view will typically keep their opposition silent. Thus, even if the majority of people are in the opposition camp, chances are their silence will spiral out of control, unquestioned (groupthink style).

Here’s the implication for this election and the primary system in general: Since the media is covering this thing like flies on roadkill, it is clear that who they focus on in their coverage (and subtly cast as the “frontrunner”) will be the perceived “winner” by the masses who are planning to vote. Thus, even if said voters secretly wish for candidate “underdog” to win, they will most likely view a vote for him/her as a waste. And no one wants to waste a vote. Instead, they will likely vote for candidate “frontrunner,” placing themselves within the consensus and boosting momentum for the person most likely to make a strong showing in the national race. Do you see how this goes counter to the whole purpose of democracy?

The primary system is concerning to me, not because I don’t think states like Iowa or New Hampshire are unthinking anomalies that don’t represent the country as a whole, but because they have so much power to decide the winners and losers. In the 2000 election, George W. Bush won the Iowa Caucus and South Carolina primary handily, forcing all the other Republican candidates out the race by February (with the exception of John McCain and Alan Keyes). In 2004 on the Democratic side, Howard Dean had all the momentum going into the Iowa Caucus, but placed a surprising third (behind Kerry and Edwards), which then destroyed his chances in New Hampshire (he lost to Kerry there too), forcing him to withdraw from the race even before Super Tuesday. To summarize the impact of these early primaries: If you don’t win them, you’re not going to be president.

This harsh truth is a reality because unfortunately the American populace has been conditioned by the media to reduce everything down to winners and losers (one facet of the overarching black/white binary so pervasive in the press). If a candidate appears to be a “winner,” more people will begin to vote for him or her. Not so if there is a “loser” or “dark horse” perception. But why is this so? Why are we so simple-minded in this manipulative, herd-mentality electoral process?

Sadly I think this is all a result of our general ignorance of the issues and the actual positions candidates represent. Even in the digital era in which finding out what a candidate has to say is no harder than a Google search, most Americans have no idea what distinguishes one candidate from another. We might be able to distinguish Mike Huckabee from Mitt Romney in a lineup (though I shudder to think how many Americans couldn’t even do this), but as far as how their platforms on immigration or health care differ, the majority of us would be hard pressed to come up with anything. It’s not that we don’t care or don’t pay attention to the media, it is that we do pay attention to the media. And the media has little concern for the issues. For the media it’s not about the ingredients, it’s about the overall taste. Unfortunately for our country and its longterm democratic health, a sweet and palatable taste is not what we need in a president. We need to check the label, read the ingredients, and assess the nutritional value before we pick our next poison.