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Bill Grigsby: Reality TV Ground Zero

Reality TV Ground Zero


By Bill Grigsby

Reality TV came on the scene with Beanie Baby-like flair, and said one thing loud and clear: Some Americans will believe anything. Or buy anything. Karl Rove has built a career on H.L. Mencken’s simple notion that ‘nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.’

Reality TV is an oxymoron. Ninety percent of TV is unreal. If people believed TV were real, why would there be a need to distinguish the ‘reality TV’ genre? As Noam Chomsky observed, asserting the opposite is effective if you have the means to do it over and over, in a systematic and organized way. And while the current White House communications team has raised asserting the opposite to art form, the tactic is vulnerable to a simple child’s game—the opposite game.

A policy called Clear Skies, you say? That means clean enough skies (dirtier than we’d have under current law).

No Child Left Behind? Cast poor public schools adrift (and encourage their children to jump ship. Let’s just privatize the whole mess!).

I don’t govern by the polls? T’was sheer coincidence led me to choose the only issue I beat Kerry on as the one to frame the 2004 election (but give me time …).

I invaded Iraq in the name of democracy? Of course Kid Brother Jeb helped me win Florida in 2000 by disenfranchising tens of thousands of democratic voters!

I’m a compassionate conservative? I’ll cut taxes for wealthy Americans, programs for poor Americans, and civil rights for gays (Yes, the 2004 Compassion Tour is rolling into a town near you! Keep your children away from the curb!)!

I want to get to the bottom of this Valerie Plame incident? Just how many millions of taxpayer dollars is pseudojournalist Bob Novak’s career worth?

I’m a uniter, not a divider?
But keep flag burning handy in case the polls go south on the amendment to ban gay marriage!

In the opposite game, whatever the president says is the opposite of what he means. And every day is truly opposite day at the White House. It’s a crude form of translating White House PR swill, yes. Crude, but effective. Just like the BushCo media strategy. If the president comes out and says that he’s trying not to leave problems for future generations, what he means is that he will leave future generations and administrations problems that he not only didn’t solve, but created or at least did his best to worsen.

After three years of tax cuts we’re half a trillion in debt, he’s pushing to make them permanent, revenue collected as a percentage of national income is at a 50-year low, and his ‘surrogates,’ like Dick Cheney (now there’s a symmetric perversion of reality…), are saying that Kerry and Edwards’ policies would have endangered all the economic growth we’ve seen in the last three years (insert confused pause). BushCo opposes taxes on polluting industries and corporations to clean up superfund sites, preferring to let taxpayers pick up the tab after he’s out of office, either through public clean-ups or higher mortality rates, one supposes. Those companies know better than the government how to spend their money—on campaign donations.

The opposite game isn’t just a gimmick, though—it’s really an effective way to interpret White House intentions. Sometimes they push the envelope too far, though. Like when RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie tried to claim that John Kerry was unprincipled for taking money from special interests ( this message was brought to you by Exxon/Mobil/Pfizer/Citicorp/Halliburton …). Then they tried to claim, after scrutinizing Kerry’s 20 year senate career, that he is a flip-flop artist.

Does ‘No nation building’ ring a bell? Remember that Bush the candidate was going to restore integrity to the White House? Uniter not divider? Bipartisan president? Can anyone say weapons of mass destruction-related program activities five times real fast?

But like the Jones Gang in the Talking Heads song, this time he’s gone too far. Even the re-election strategy makes more sense through the opposite game prism:

1) pretend to convey a positive message of hope and security by crudely distorting your opponent’s record and stoking Americans’ insecurities. In a tasteful, cinematic way, of course, with lots of foreboding music and slow motion shots.

2) assert that this means the president is displaying leadership.

Karl Rove is attempting to create the convenient illusion that real leaders sometimes have to do unpopular things (like gut the treasury to unclog republican campaign revenue streams), things that may seem inane, things that make you wonder if you’re watching the real TV presidency or a sitcom, things that make no sense until you follow the money trail back to the White House’s corporate bankrollers, or the pronouncements back to positions taken by key voting blocks. But the ads, paid and free, say he does these things out of principle. A public institution being run and financed by private interests is being sold as public leadership.

But that’s not all. Even the mere incompetent, with the right marketing, could manage to sell political opportunism as leadership. Especially with an uncritical corporate media keeping score. What makes the leadership illusion truly Orwellian is that behind the manufactured persona George W. Bush appears to be the most unprepared, unstudied, unprincipled president since Calvin Coolidge. He doesn’t read newspapers, has to rely on simplified scripts to keep him from derailing the Neoconservative juggernaut, and requires apologists, publicists and ‘surrogates’ to explain him when he says things like ‘bring ‘em on’ or ‘there is no such thing necessarily in a dictatorial regime of iron-clad absolutely solid evidence. The evidence I had was the best possible evidence that he had a weapon.’

George W’s red state media persona as a Texas redneck who says ‘nucular’ has been carefully cultivated by Karen Hughes and Karl Rove. And for what reason? To play the electoral college game. Not bad for a Connecticut party boy (into his 40s, mind you), born on third base but raised to think he hit a triple as Ann Richards said, a Yale and Harvard graduate, a daddy who got him a spot in the National Guard, and friends in the oil biz who helped him land softly while his companies crashed and burned.

So leadership translates into media buys, suits and super slo-mo shots for suburban soccer moms, cowboy hats and dust for the NASCAR demographic, with a generous helping of flags and really high quality cinematography for the key swing states. When managing a presidency for TV consumers, it’s always best to start with images, make unsubstantiated assertions when needed, and if ever pressed assert that this is all more than empty rhetoric. And for those times when it becomes painfully obvious that Bush’s immediate circle of ‘surrogates’ are the ones doing any heavy lifting that needs doing, because they can venture beyond the talking points without sounding like Mayella Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird, simply launch a spam campaign asserting that the president is a genuine leader! How many great leaders obsess with reminding their media audience what great leadership qualities they have? One area of leadership does stand out, though—this president can raise money. However, when you consider that the donations are often in lieu of taxes, it only serves to remind that the real geniuses are working in the background.

If the president seems befuddled on those rare occasions when he’s left to speak for himself, it’s probably because he’s just reading the script—he isn’t writing it. The re-election strategy, in the absence of substance or success, seems to rely on a sophisticated version of turd polishing. After all, the president, who as Commander-in-Chief gets to give everyone nicknames and make them respond to them, calls Karl Rove his ‘turd blossom.’

After 8 months of TV ads, drawing down their $150 million in campaign donations, offering up high-gloss variations on fear, leadership and character assassination, TV viewing audiences may be screaming for an antidote, desperate for something, anything, to take their minds off the corporate infomercial that seems to pass for democratic process.

Say, this Reality TV stuff may be trickier than I thought . . .

©2004 Bill Grigsby, Eastern Oregon University

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