When politics becomes soap opera

For your consideration and discussion we take a look at a rather bleak column by Andrew McCarthy at National Review from this week. In it, he discusses the converging roles of two forms of entertainment in modern media. One is the soap opera, now in decline in the ratings from their peak in the 70’s and 80’s, but still quite popular. People seemed to flock to these shows for the unending drama, with unlikely heroes turning into villains and back to heroes again, facing increasingly unbelievable situations of stress and conflict week after week. Viewers were able to enjoy it as a vacation from reality. But that was the point… it wasn’t real and we all knew it.

McCarthy argues that we have now reached the point where politics has usurped the place of the soap opera in American media, and that’s not a good thing.

Politics is our reality. It only seems like soap opera because of the way it is covered: Right into your living room, day-in-day-out, celebrity journalists present the adventures of their fellow dramatis personae, celebrity pols. The journalists portray politics, moreover, as suspense, and not just such suspense as the news of the day may warrant by dint of its relative seriousness — an earthquake, the outbreak of a war, or the specter of millions losing health-insurance plans they were promised they could keep. The continuing suspense lies in the practice of politics.

A little more than 15 minutes ago, there were only three major networks and a handful of prominent national newspapers. The focus of this limited news-media universe was the events themselves.

Not anymore. With a plethora of news sources, with limitless space and hours of airtime to fill, events are now more like episodes of a long-running drama. Politics is the glue that holds the plot together. No longer is the story that millions of people are losing health insurance that President Obama guaranteed they would be able to keep. For the mainstream press, it is about how cleverly Obama can rationalize his lies, how adroitly can he revise what he’s previously said, how deftly can he turn the page . . . shifting the audience’s attention to the next episode — maybe immigration, maybe Iran, maybe the debt ceiling . . .

It’s easy to pin the blame for this on the cable news media. They thrive on drama and conflict and actively seek to foment it wherever they can. The examples of this are legion, but the easiest sample to point to is found in the presidential primary debates during the last cycle. Rather than asking questions of substance on policy and the challenges facing the nation, they threw out clips of “controversial” statements made by one candidate regarding another and baited them to crank up the heat and continue the food fight. Every night we see the talking heads looking for the most “outrageous outrage of the day” to cover rather than exploring the dry, boring details of policy and legislation or foreign policy challenges.

But there would be nothing for them to cover if politicians weren’t fulfilling their roles as actors in this new soap opera. It’s really a beast which feeds itself. The pols want the face time on the small screen, so they play up to the media, supplying the endless stream of “outrage” and drama which will keep the cameras focused on them. People who actually engage in the tedious business of trying to find workable solutions to problems – Paul Ryan comes to mind – can’t get time on camera unless they hit somebody with their car.

So has the American political theater and the media which fuels it become the new soap opera of the 21st century? In reality, that’s probably something of an insult to General Hospital. At least Luke and Laura had the good grace to chuckle at their own lives sometimes.

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