Sunday, December 05, 2004

Pandermania

With Bush's microscopic win and the illusion - incorrect - that "values voters" pushed him over the edge rather than people still terrified by 9/11, the media prepares to pander to the dumbest among us, as Frank Rich perceptively observes:

There's a war on. TV remains by far the most prevalent source of news for Americans. We need honest information to help us navigate, not bunkum skewed to flatter one segment of the country, whatever that segment might be. Yet here's how Jeff Zucker, the NBC president, summed up the attributes of Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw's successor, to Peter Johnson of USA Today: "No one understands this Nascar nation more than Brian." Mr. Zucker was in sync with his boss, Bob Wright, the NBC Universal chairman, who described America as a "red state world" on the eve of Mr. Brokaw's retirement. Though it may come as news to those running NBC, we actually live in a red-and-blue-state country, in a world that increasingly hates all our states without regard to our provincial obsession with their hues. Nonetheless, Mr. Williams, who officially took over as anchor on Dec. 2, is seeking a very specific mandate. "The New York-Washington axis can be a journalist's worst enemy," he told Mr. Johnson, promising to spend his nights in the field in "Dayton and Toledo and Cincinnati and Denver and the middle of Kansas." (So much for San Francisco - or Baghdad.)

Isn't this wonderful? For all his faults, Brokaw at least had some sense of perspective, thanks to his strong interest in history. Brian Williams is focusing his laser-beam vision on yokels and yahoos.

I don't mean to single out Mr. Williams, who is prone to making such statements while wearing suits that reek of "New York-Washington axis" money and affectation. But when he talks in a promotional interview of how he found the pulse of the nation in Cabela's, a popular hunting-and-fishing outfitter in Dundee, Mich., and boasts of owning both an air rifle and part interest in a dirt-track stock-car team, he is declaring himself the poster boy for a larger shift in our news culture. He is eager to hunt down an audience, not a story.

He's not an isolated case. You know red is de rigueur when ABC undertakes the lunatic task of trying to repackage the last surviving evening news anchor, the heretofore aggressively urbane Peter Jennings, as a sentimental populist. In a new spot for "World News Tonight," Mr. Jennings tells us that "this is a really hopeful nation, and I think there's a great beauty in that." This homily is not only factually inaccurate - most Americans continue to tell pollsters that the nation is on the wrong track - but is also accompanied by a tinkling music-box piano and a montage leaning on such Kodak tableaus as a fishing cove, a small-town front porch and a weather-beaten man driving a car with a flag decal. Mr. Jennings is a smart newsman, but his just-folks incarnation is about as persuasive as Teresa Heinz Kerry's chow-down photo op at Wendy's.

I suppose we are to assume that if we live in a city and don't own weaponry or have a car infested with NASCAR decals and little flags, we're just not American. It's incredible that the media - big city/college educated/sneering at the sticks - are falling for this. And it's affecting the way they report the news, and not in a good way:

A creepier example of the shift toward red news could also be found last weekend when ABC's prime-time magazine show "20/20" aired an hourlong "investigation" into the brutal 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard in the red state of Wyoming. "20/20" added little except hyperventilation to previous revisionist accounts of the story, most notably JoAnn Wypijewski's 1999 Harper's article filling in the role crystal meth might have played in driving the crime. But ABC had obtained the first TV interviews with the killers and seemed determined to rehabilitate their images along the way. The reporter, Elizabeth Vargas, told us that while the pair had been "variously portrayed in press reports as 'rednecks' and 'trailer trash,' " they were actually just all-American everymen with "steady jobs, steady girlfriends and classically troubled backgrounds." Aaron McKinney, the killer who beat Shepard into an unrecognizable pulp, wasn't even challenged on camera when he said he had "gay friends" (none of whom were produced or persuavely vouched for by ABC) and that he had only invoked a homophobic "gay panic" defense in his trial because that's what the lawyers told him to do. What's not to like about the guy?

Incredible. To make its new "red states" viewers feel comfy, ABC attempts to rehabilitate white trash homophobes. What is going on here?

...the networks were often cautious about challenging government propaganda even before the election. (Follow-ups to the original Abu Ghraib story quickly fell off TV's radar screen.) As far back as last spring Ted Koppel's roll-call of the American dead on "Nightline," in which the only images were beatific headshots, was condemned as a shocking breach of decorum by the mostly red-state ABC affiliates that refused to broadcast it. If full-scale Nascarization is what's coming next, there will soon be no pictures but those promising a mission accomplished, no news but good news. And that's good news only if you believe America has something to gain by fighting a war in the dark.

Indeed. The Goebbelsization of the American media marches on. It would be a farce if it were not a bloody tragedy.


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