There are fewer things less interesting to comment on, to the average person, than that of the role that the media play and will play in the present and future respectively. However, there are fewer things more important to comment on as well. After watching the documentary “Best of Enemies” for the second time I began thinking about the state of modern political commentary. For those who are unaware, “Best of Enemies” is a documentary wherein the feud between the staunch conservative William F. Buckley Jr. and the unapologetically left-wing Gore Vidal was examined. These two political figures are, essentially, the cartoonish moldings of what we consider the generic Right and generic Left at the present time.
Before their debates on ABC the news was a very cold and tedious business. The set-up was roundly the same. A person sat down, looked at the camera while dressed very formally, and rattled off what happened that was considered worthy enough to be news. The moment ABC started seeing extreme boosts in their ratings after the frazzle and bang that were the Buckley/Vidal debates, various news networks decided to host more argument-based programming. The news stories began taking a backseat to the argument. Before anyone jumps down my throat this is not my saying that argument-based programming is bad on its face. I enjoy watching intellectual heavyweights on different sides of the aisle at each others throats as much as the next person. Unfortunately, when people are attempting to rhetorically pin down their opponent they have a tendency to be dishonest in the process. Let’s be frank for a second, most invited guests on argument-based programming today aren’t exactly heavyweights in the intellectual sphere either.
This is what Jon Stewart alludes to when you watch the full clip of his appearance on the now (thankfully) cancelled show “Crossfire.” Stewart stresses the difference between “debate shows” and “theater.” There is definitely a contrast between tuning into a show in order to see honest intellectual sparring, it is quite another to tune in simply to watch someone in opposition to your ideas get “destroyed.” I would like to qualify Stewart’s statements about the state of the current media. It is possible to have honest and theatrical debate. There is a place for rhetoric, logic, and honesty within modern political discourse. But from what I have seen transpire over the short span of 22 years is political commentary getting more about the style and far less about the substance. I wouldn’t be surprised if facts came out proving that news network staffers spend more time on their special effects and graphics as opposed to fact-checking. This is something that needs to be addressed head on.
Again, to satiate the throat-jumpers, I am just as annoyed with puritans who feel that all politics should be a cold dissemination of facts about either candidate. The facts are very important, and I think that the American people are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves which candidate best suits their values and positions without the help of political analysts of any stripe. But, cold hard facts are not what draw eyes to screens. What draws eyes to screens is the spark and fizz we have been seeing presently. What is the main reason that people give when you ask them why they don’t tune into programs such as “C-Span?” If we’re being honest, the main reason given is the fact that it is boring, priggish, prim, prude, stuffy, and far too formal to be interesting. If the media is to keep people informed it needs to lose the black tie uniforms, baggy jeans, ties, and the backwards ball cap. It needs to adopt a very “business casual” approach when it comes to delivering factually accurate information in a way that also appeals to the entertainment aspect of television. In the late 1960s, most of the political landscape was dominated by suits, that may or may not have had a human beneath them, performing the role of the bottom-banner news-ticker.
Currently, most of the political landscape (as it always has been) is dominated by “The C-Word.” The word being “commentary,” not to be confused with the illness, or the word used to purposefully put radical feminists into a shrieking frenzy. I beg of you, readers of mine, not to confuse the act of commentating with the act of news reporting. It is as base of a difference as the contrast between fact and opinion. Commentary is not news, it is not fact, and it sure isn’t journalism. Commentary considered to be “mainstream” generally falls down one political party’s ideological framework. For example, compare the work of Bill O’Reilly with that of Rachel Maddow. The problem with these programs, in my opinion, is that they subtly trick the viewer into thinking that the objective news is whatever point of view the host of the show is spouting. I’ve seen a dramatic shift in tone since my life began and people are starting to shy away from mainstream political punditry in favor of alternative internet political punditry. People haven’t hidden from political punditry altogether, they just wanted something different and fresh. However, I have my own issues with this as well. In case you haven’t noticed by now, I tend to have issues with nearly everything.
There has been a trend forming among different brands of alternative commentator to be what we would call “edgy.” Generally, when I used to hear the term “edgy,” I used to think of someone who was naturally on the fringe. I thought of someone who had political ideas far off of the footprint-speckled paths. I think being edgy is an excellent thing when it naturally occurs. When one has an off-course opinion one should attempt to shout it as loud as they possibly can in order for it to be heard. Issues begin to arise, however, when commentary is marketed on its “edginess.” Edginess for the sake of edginess hardly ever works in comedy, and it also hardly ever works in the political sphere. By “works” I don’t mean “doesn’t draw eyes to screens,” I mean “doesn’t work,” as in, “makes you look like an overall drooling lunatic with an audience populated with similar people who also tend to over-salivate.” Whenever I begin listening to (or reading) alternative political commentary and get bombarded with terms like, “fuck being nice,” “no apologies,” “politically incorrect,” or the worst of them all, “cutting-edge,” I tune out immediately. If you embody these qualities, people will notice. If someone needs to convince you that they are these things before you read them, then they are most likely putting on a front and simply marketing to you. Political correctness is indeed something that prevents facts and opinions from seeing the light, but when the only political incorrectness commentators end up mustering is calling people they don’t like “cunts,” and “dickwads,” then they are hacks of the worst variety. Saying words that make children cry is all well and good, now give me substance. Swears are not substance in and of themselves.
This takes me beautifully back to the Buckley and Vidal debates. The statement that the documentary portrays Buckley regretted all his life was this statement after being rather cheaply called a “crypto-Nazi,” by the likes of Vidal:
Now listen you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamned face you’ll stay plastered.
While this is an understandable reaction to being told to shut up, and then called a crypto-Nazi it is noticeably devoid of any political insight whatsoever. That being said, it is the most memorable part of the interactions between Buckley and Vidal. The reason that portion of the debate stays implanted in our minds so easily is because people expected calm rational discussion and got threats of violence. It’s the same reason we remember the interaction between the likes of Zoey Tur and Ben Shapiro where Tur threatened Shapiro with violence. Though, the political parties were reversed in that scenario. Considering how partisan Vidal was, and how partisan Shapiro currently is they would both probably wretch at being mentioned in the same sentence. That’s what I like about them. There is a very frilly sentiment being thrown around about political argument on how it always needs to be respectable, posh, uptight, and whatnot and I disagree completely. I enjoy when people get gritty in their tone naturally within argument, what I hate is when people put on a mask of grittiness and market how “real” their “talk” is. It’s a distinction one may consider minor, but it is a very important one to me and most likely to a sizeable number of people.
There is a pattern on various networks such as MSNBC and Fox in regards to political commentary. In general, you will have a commentator delivering some outlying facts and then giving their long-winded, passionate, and predictable opinion about them. Then, in the middle of this program, they will invite two people on, one from one side and one from the other. However, whenever the two guests get too fiery with each other, or indeed the host, the host will come along and do the equivalent of telling everyone to stop arguing, kiss, and make up. Of course, said host will completely ignore their passionate opinions directly before said guests arrived and acts surprised that everyone isn’t sandwiching their criticisms with compliments. If you invite someone on for their point of view, you shouldn’t attempt to talk over that point of view for the sake of your own ego or a faux concern with politeness. Some people do not deserve politeness.
In the end, we’re given a false dichotomy in political commentary between posh and gritty, boring and flamboyant, honest and dishonest. Unfortunately gritty and flamboyant drags dishonesty behind it the moment ego gets in the way of a passionate debate. My suggestion is to let the fires burn, but carry your own personal pail of emotional water at all times. If you can’t prevent yourself from hovering above the rest of us with your politeness, or control your emotions to prevent yourself from sounding like a lunatic then please stop insisting I take you seriously.