The Pursuit Of “Meaning”

There are tons and tons of posts and stories and columns all trying to figure out what the point of this whole thing was.  The rally was never announced as one thing, leading to endless debate on what it might be, could be, should be.  It was one of those situations where we could not simply let the thing stand on its own.  Before the show was over people were already griping about what didn’t happen.  My friend Rachel thinks it was a missed opportunity, that they should have named names, drag to the carpet those who rant on the right, spewing forth with hate speech and vile propaganda.  They didn’t call out the Rightist lunatics who drum up this hate speech, drag them to the carpet and poo-poo them, pointing their righteous fingers and saying how WRONG they are.   But why?  What venue is that suitable for?  More importantly, how is that sane

Hell, google “Rally For Sanity Woodstock” and you’ll see endless parables about how IMPORTANT the event was, and how it’s HISTORIC, and how people argue over what it’s MEANING is and will be in the future (as if we can just automatically guess).  It’s as if there was some sort of bar that they had to reach in order for it to have a long-lasting success, creating yet another schism between Us and Them.  A lot of this commentary is selfish; it’s done with an eye us as parents, pointing to in our kid’s history books so that we could feel important, say “look, honey, I was there.  I did something.”

That kind of hyperbolic statement is exactly what they’re up against.  The rally, in my opinion, was for calling out just how ridiculous the 24-hour news cycle has become, how they’ve put forth nothing but shocking opinion pieces solely to illicit reactions, and how disgusting it all is.  So what do we do?  Make hyperbolic statements with crazy headlines like “this is our generation’s Woodstock” to illicit reactions.  Then we all take to the comments like we’re trying to siege the beaches of Normandy.

This was a rally for Sanity put forward by two guys who mock both politics and the media on a nearly-daily basis.  They are not politicians, they do not work for news organizations, they are not legitimate.  Honestly.  Listen to them say it during almost any interview.  Taking that kind of work brings baggage.  Yes, when Time Magazine said that more Americans trust Jon Stewart with the news than anyone else it’s probably a true statement.  Luckily for us, Stewart sees that poll and is appalled by the results.  We tend to act like it’s some sort of badge of honor that we get our news from Comedy Central, or in some way find it ironically funny (as we find everything else to be ironically funny nowadays).  I think our two faux-pundits see it as a crime.

These news agencies give a voice to the craziest of the wackjobs because they know it’ll stir up conversation.  But what they seemingly forget is that they also give these people credibility.  Look at the Floridian who decided to burn the Korans on September 11th.  If there wasn’t a camera crew down there, no one would have even known it was happening.  Hell, there would have been about 20 people probably at most and it would have gone by like a fart in the wind.  But no.  We couldn’t let that happen, could we?  Instead it’s running constantly with people bringing him up as if he fucking matters, having endless debates about the validity of his practice, what it means to Americans, what it means to Muslims, having to get both white people and brown people on the TV to yell about it at each other.

This is NOT about the left vs. the right.  This is about Us vs. Them, and, more explicitly, Us against Ourselves.  Look what they’ve turned us into.  We no longer have anything like civil discourse.  We see maniacs on TV getting endless press coverage just so we can hem and haw and scream and point and criticize and belittle and shake our fingers at the image.  Essentially, we’re doing just what they want us to do.  We elect politicians full of fire and brimstone to head to the House to do the same thing.  Nothing gets done for us; instead we get a show.  We don’t get universal health care, or an actual debate upon its merits.  No, we get Death Panels.  We hear about how PEOPLE will be MURDERED by the GOVERNMENT if this is PASSED!

And now the dialogue has changed.  It’s no longer about the issues at hand (cost per person insured, the ridiculous “prior conditions” statues in many policies, how expensive and yet how limited these policies are, how Medicaid and Medicare factor in to the program, how costs can be lowered across the board, how our health system will change, how little it will look like the other “gatekeeper” models in Britain and Canada, who would help pay for your coverage, and so on and so forth).  The politicians change the dialogue.  This is then played up by the 24-hour news channels (sadly, our only real source of “news” throughout the land) and has “experts” yelling at each other about the validity of the claims of “death panels.”  But what does the coverage do for me?  For my family?  Questions best left in the ether, I suppose.

These news organizations sensationalize everything just to get this debate started.  They make smaller stories bigger if only to give the forty or so “analysts” they keep on staff something to do instead of sitting in the green room playing Angry Birds (cause seriously, who isn’t playing Angry Birds?).  Every story devolves into hyperbole being thrown at more hyperbole and somehow being registered as “debate.”  The power of TV gives these people some kind of authority, when really it’s just people talking about stuff on TV.  That’s it.

This brand of “news” drives us to talk to each other about how ridiculous the whole conversation is until eventually one ill-informed friend goes “well I heard those were true.”  Then we can all jump upon our high horses and should them with “facts” that are then countered as “propaganda” by our friend because they are just that:  ill-informed.  With no idea what the facts are–because the news never informed them on what’s actually going on–we just get into screaming matches over silly things, never getting to the heart of the issue.

Instead, we become a part of a weird hyperbole trickle-down effect:  The lobbyists who are in with the politicians give them buzzwords, those buzzwords hold up our actual government, those buzzwords are then bandied about by “experts” on TV, then those buzzwords are debated endlessly by the government.  And traction occurs.  Nothing happens.  We all lose.  Again.

I want news.  As I wrote in a previous post, I long for the days of Edward R. Murrow’s “See It Now.”  It was such a simple show, really.  They took an issue (in the example I saw in college, it was de-segregating schools), flew a camera man, sound man, and reporter down to the spot where the problem existed and let the people affected share their side of the story.  The reporter prefaced the piece by saying where they were (in this case, a southern state) who they were talking to (students at an all-black school and students at an all-white one) and just let them give their opinions.

It was an utterly fascinating piece of footage.  There were white kids saying how they didn’t care, black kids who were reticent to join up with people they knew so little about, discussion over which school would close and which they liked the most, etc. etc.  It went on like this, edited evenhandedly to give equal time to both sides of the matter, for about five minutes.  When they were out of usable footage (or maxed out on that segment’s allotted time) the reporter did a quick close-out sentence to wrap it all up (I believe he gave the date that the schools were to merge).  We cut back to Murrow who thanked the reporter for their effort and time.

That’s it.  On to the next important piece of news.

And sadly, that’s the reputation that Murrow doesn’t have.  No, he’s the hero who ended McCarthyism.  He’s the guy who took a stand, deciding that, dammit, some things can’t be handled objectively!  Some times you have to go on the news and stand for something.  With Murrow’s very public nudging, McCarthy went back to being a helpless drunk and America’s news landscape was forever altered.  Now we have Keith Olbermann biting Murrow, stealing his signature end phrase, and somehow feeling self-righteous enough to use his show on a news network as his own watchdog hour to decide for us how to think.  Olbermann will tell us what’s right and what’s wrong.

Take this rather famous clip of his reaction to the “9/11 mosque” another story that grew wildly out of hand once it hit the 24-Hour news cycle and devolved into hate speech vs. freedom of speech.  Notice the intensity, the emotion, the righteousness.  Look at how the angles are based so clearly off of Murrow.  And notice the cadence of his voice and the delivery of his words.  All he’s missing is a slowly burning cigarette and he’s pulled off everything you’ve seen in the film Good Night, And Good Luck.  He gives David Strathairn a run for his money.  [Make sure to mention the fact that Olbermann poo-poos the sensationalism being brought about by this issue…then seconds later equates that this could be the first step towards a genocide of Muslims like that of the Holocaust.]

Now take Bill O’Reilly and his recent appearance on The View:

Here’s a former newscaster who is completely unable to get into a conversation on the matter because he’s too busy shouting down everything that these women say, driving them to turn into a chirping bunch of parakeets whose cage you need to cover with a towel just to get them to stop.  O’Reilly plays the heel, like he’s Hollywood Hogan, all to the applause of approval or the jeers from the crowd.  No matter the reaction, they’re still listening rapturously.  He’s playing the role of rebelrouser just as Olbermann plays the role of cool-headed righteous prophet, when he’s just shoveling the same amount of truthiness.

This isn’t discourse.  Barbara Walters says as much before she jumps right back in to cackling with the rest of the ladies causing the sound man great strife while leaving America unaware if they should cheer, chant, boo, or holler.  This isn’t a debate about news, topics, politics, anything.  This is the WWF, circa 1993.  I’m half waiting for Bill to slap a grandma or take the ice cream cone away from a small girl.  And the way he’s carrying on, how far away is it from him in a monologue on his own, just like Olbermann?

We only like Olbermann because he’s on our side.  He’s our emotional, screaming lunatic.  Just because he is saying things that we like, that somehow makes it ok.  In that “special comment” on the mosque, he says that to compare this issue to the Holocaust would be ludicrous, and that he wouldn’t do that.  That opinion is held by zealots and lunatics.  Then, nearly twenty-five seconds later, he says that this might be the first steps towards what might be considered an “inevitable” purging of Muslims from our earth.  And that’s ok?  Because he quoted someone and said that it might get as bad as the systematic killing of people because of their religion, that’s not fear speech?  That isn’t made to just get us all riled up in the same way that O’Reilly does?   Just because he’s spouting bullshit that we sorta believe in doesn’t mean that he should spout bullshit in the first place.

This is what Jon Stewart meant when he dropped his pull quote from the rally:  If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.  And to stop this ridiculous nonsense, you don’t need to attend a rally in Washington DC or go to a book burning party or blog about it.  We all simply need to grow up.  If we treat each other with the same amount of respect that we do with every other issue that doesn’t involve politics, maybe we’ll remember with civil discourse is really like.  Maybe that will make us not fall into the same fear-mongering cycle that was so popular after so many eyes were watching the networks after 9/11 and they needed a way to keep our eyes around.  Maybe they’ll realize that we just want to be informed.  Maybe we’ll all just shut out the wackos and keep them labeled as such in the general social strata:  as wackos who aren’t deserving of our time or our energy.  Maybe one day we’ll actually regain sanity.

In the end, it’s up to us.  Each of us.  That’s what I think this rally is about, and it’s the reason why I’m so proud to have attended.

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4 thoughts on “The Pursuit Of “Meaning”

  1. I read this entry with great interest, initially motivated by my envy at not having attended the rally myself.

    I have to say that I’m not entirely sure I agree with you.

    I too admire the work of straight-forward journalistic reporting a la Murrow. It’s sad that there is very little straight reporting on the airwaves. An argument can be made that ABC Evening News (et al) represent this sort of work (certainly programs like Nightline meet this standard; Meet the Press probably qualifies despite its round-table format). I admit that most of my news comes from National Public Radio, and it’s most likely true in a small way that these outlets live up to their liberal-bias.

    However, I can’t discount the importance of news analysis or commentary. While Bill O’Reilly’s program is without question a bully pulpit (Olbermann’s too), I don’t see this as a violation of an important function of news-making, which is to draw conclusions about straight facts. It is here that bias is inevitable. Editorializing remains in my mind an asset to “consumers” of news.

    Two things are clearly tragic: that the tenor of this editorializing has reached hysteric notes, and that the spectacle of this hysteria has created a disproportionately large market for analysis over reporting. But this does not negate the value of editorializing for me.

    On a side note, how is it possible that Elisbaeth Hasselbeck said the only genuinely insightful thing in that clip?

    – Brendan (ex-college-roommate)

  2. Here’s a link to one of the articles I was talking about on the phone last night: http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/blog/2010/10/31/insane-thing-about-rally-sanity

    I think it’s a legitimate issue to consider the underpinnings of what Colbert and Stewart suggest by the message of the rally. Not that the rally itself was an opportunity to take these issues out for a trot–I totally agree with you that the day itself was executed exactly right. However–this whole idea of “why can’t we all just get along?” is the language of equivalency, and that’s still not sitting with me very well.

    Like you say, though, this isn’t necessarily the issue or fault of C&S, but rather a larger issue we’re seeing mirrored in the ways the right delivers their news. They’re shouting louder, and with more hate. We need to be willing to say as a collective group that, no, your rhetoric is more venomous and bigoted than ours, and we won’t stand for it. We will rise up, our grammar correct (ha!) and our moral compass pointing toward fairness and justice, for civil rights, and speak just as loudly as you.

  3. Brendan:

    First, hey! From there, I do agree that some editorial works. There is an unabashed love for Jack Cafferty in my heart (maybe because I see him drinking a belt of scotch before he saunters onto the set) and maybe my example of Olbermann and O’Reilly aren’t the best, since they’re both specifically geared towards editorializing and not reading the news. I should have said that the actual times where news comes up (generally any other time during the day before 7 or so) there is a bit too many opinions and people being asked to comment about the news. Sure, experts should give me a better idea of what is going on, but I don’t necessarily need them to tell me how I should feel about it, y’know? And as for Elizabeth Hasselbeck? I’m as shocked as you are.

    Rachel:

    I think the biggest issue is what we project S&C to be and what they want to be. They are not liberal, political superheroes who are to rally the leftist masses and rebel. Where are the government figures who do that? Where is the Democratic party? Why are we putting that sort of importance on two comedians? It’s ridiculous and, honestly, a more stinging indictment of our times than anything else. They mock the news, they don’t try to make it.

    It really bothers me that that article kept saying “us” against “them.” It reminds me of the great Titus Andronicus song Four Score and Seven, “This is a war we can’t win/for 10,000 years it’s been us against them.” Towards the end, they scream out “it’s us against them” a multitude of times until it ends with “and they’re winning.” And that’s how futile I think this whole argument is.

    For whatever reason, we are a very self-important lot. Nothing has been worse than right now, no times have been as dire, no crazies have been as crazy as right now. There have always been lunatics and there will always be lunatics. This is how the cycle goes. I’m not about to put on my fatigues to go toe-to-toe with crazy assholes whose power might not be more than 3 million strong in a country of 300 million plus. And if our pussy media would decide to just ignore them then there would be 3 million shouting into the void, where it belongs in the first place.

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