The latest conventional wisdom from the media reflects an aching desire to take politics away from self-obsessed loudmouths like Jesse Ventura and give it back to the "professionals." Ventura's dreadful interview with Playboy, in which he denounced organized religion as "a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people," exposed Ventura as the dumbest star in American politics.
But it also underlined the media's hypocritical protests about celebrities in politics. Simply put, they're loving it. Take Newsweek, which ran a "Hollywood Squares" layout with all the celebrities thinking of running for high office, from Cybill Shepherd to Jerry Springer. The subheadline read: "It's the triumph of entertainment, and it's one helluva show." But who's profiting from glitzy photo layouts deploring "a more glamorous government"? The news media brazenly turn politics into entertainment. Serious political observers can't rely on the evening news for substance. All this venue has to offer is podium-thumping soundbites and personal attacks based on trite nothingness. Reporters, - er, journalists, I should say - - are incapable of explaining a legislative issue without hanky-wringing emotional anecdotes about "victims." And how they love their celebrities, too! They've spent 1999 obsessing over Hillary Clinton's ghost Senate candidacy. A test: can you remember a single network news story about any other more real Senate race this year?
Why would Newsweek feel forced to turn to the Reform Party circus for a cover story? Because the media have proclaimed the Republican presidential race to be over, and even if Bill Bradley is beginning to scare Al Gore, the media are terrified that these two are about as entertaining as watching grass grow. Could they sell Newsweek with Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes, John McCain, or Liddy Dole on the cover? Apparently not. So it's back to the "wild bunch" of actors, wrestlers, and tycoons - while deploring it all the way to the bank.
The name of the game is glitz. Matt Lauer and Katie Couric couldn't lead the ratings with debates on Medicare, for heaven's sake. Where are those hurricane victims? Where are the school shootings? The only candidates Matt and Katie like to put on are Ventura and Donald Trump. For all the condescending network talk about pandering politicians, what are the networks doing but pandering daily to the apathetic majority?
Recently, CBS correspondent Bob Schieffer ended his show "Face the Nation" with his objection to celebrity politics and screaming talking heads: "Political debate has become so mean, so partisan, and so divorced from things that affect people's lives that I suspect many of us no longer believe politics really matters. Like professional wrestling, which continues to get cable television's highest ratings, politics has become an entertainment on TV with little impact beyond that. Like wrestling, people know the political blather is mostly phony. They find it mildly amusing at times, but they no longer take it seriously."
This is nobody's fault but the Bob Schieffers of journalism, who have reported on every issue on Capitol Hill as a self-interested struggle between partisan blowhards who have no principles except winning the next election. To Schieffer, almost every debate is "the meanest ever." Building voter cynicism is what he does for a living.
Take the legislative struggle over the right to sue HMOs. Schieffer couldn't acknowledge that maybe at least one individual legislator believes that the bill would expand the number of uninsured and make health insurance more expensive for employers to provide. Maybe one legislator thinks that the Medical Savings Account is a better answer to health reform. No, Schieffer only reported "the insurance industry's trying to kill it."
Today's journalists hate candidates who depend on political action committees and other contributors, but how does a non-celebrity get a moment's notice by a political reporter without money? Only celebrities have the immediate name identification to succeed without a serious fundraising effort.
Maybe we ought to suggest a little less ruination of politics by the "professionals" in the media and a little more seriousness from the voting public in seeking out the media which can separate the real political reporters from the ratings-obsessed pretenders. Until both sides get over their fascination with wholly unqualified celebrities, we'll continue to suffer the embarrassments of knuckleheads like Jesse Ventura.