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Of Sharks in the Water, Superdelegates, and Hannah Montana's Breasts

08/15/2008 11:35 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If Marshall McLuhan was right when he wrote, "The medium is the message," then the message is clearly the following: We are the stupidest species ever to walk the earth.

What other conclusion can be drawn after two weeks which saw the ABC Presidential Debacle, in which Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos raced to the bottom of the manure heap; cable news's overblown, but predictable, reversal of the Obama-Clinton storyline after Hillary's Pennsylvania victory; and the Return of the Rabid Reverend, yet another non-event transformed into a Major Crisis simply by the fact that the media won't shut up about it?

This last was both particularly inane and particularly insidious. Inane because all day long on Thursday, April 25, the cable news channels ricocheted between Reverend Wright's bland interview with Bill Moyers and the oh-so-spectacular death of a swimmer in San Diego at the hands (or fins?) of a great white shark. You could see the anchors verging on panic, unsure which bloodsport to concentrate on, never quite sure which deadly attack their producers were asking them to pontificate about at any given moment. On the one hand, getting more juicy quotes from the explosive Reverend Wright was, so to speak, a gift from God, especially since the "Bittergate" story had more or less run its course; on the other hand, someone actually died in San Diego, in a gruesome, Spielbergian way, and there's just no substitute for cranking up terror by convincing the population they are in grave and gathering danger. (The truth -- that the number of annual deaths-by-shark worldwide averages a whopping one, fewer, one imagines, than death-by-waterboarding -- has never stopped Anderson Cooper, et. al., before...)

In the end, Reverend Wright defeated Jaws, more by TKO than knockout. After all, his delivery was hardly Tyson-esque, and the uproar must have shocked even a man who likes to communicate by shock. When asked by Moyers whether it hurt his feelings that Barack Obama had distanced himself from Wright in his speech on race, Wright shrugged and forgave, usefully pointing out that he and Obama "speak to two different audiences. And he says what he has to say as a politician. I say what I have to say as a pastor. But they're two different worlds."

Pretty innocuous stuff. But not according to Dan Abrams, whose voice actually rose two octaves as he breathlessly declared, on Verdict that Wright had called Obama "just another politician." He and his guest Joe Watkins shouted down Lawrence O'Donnell -- who tried to give a more reasonable interpretation -- insisting that Wright had just "thrown Obama under the bus!" Not to be outdone, Chris Matthews called Reverend Wright "Barack Obama's Iraq!" Andrea Mitchell summed the whole thing up devastatingly -- "Reverend Wright told Moyers Obama's speech was political" -- proving yet again that nothing scandalizes Americans more than the truth.

"Just another politician" is, of course, devastating to Obama, whose campaign has been built on the promise of a new politics. Leaving aside the question of whether that was ever accurate or possible, the charge that he's "just another politician" takes all the air out of the balloon and undoes a year of careful branding, especially when spoken by someone Obama has pointedly refused to "throw under the bus."

Too bad Wright never said it. But what does the truth matter when a lie might bring down a public figure?

It seems almost prissy to insist that news anchors stick to the transcript when it needs just a tiny tweak to become the juicy story they really want to tell: Two Black Men Trying to Tear Each Other Apart! What could be sexier to American audiences than that?

The poor shark never stood a chance.

Now we've moved on to Indiana and North Carolina, the latest "last stands" in a string of last stands that goes all the way back to New Hampshire. In the wake of Pennsylvania, you could more or less hear the news outlets shoving each other out of the way in the race to pronounce Hillary the new new frontrunner. She's no such thing, of course -- but again, why let facts get in the way?

The truth is that the length of the primary season has forced the news media to depend on turnabout -- on some change in the story that they've all grown so bored of telling. In The Poetics, Aristotle identifies reversal as an essential aspect of great drama: the mighty fall, the blind see, the disgraced achieve redemption, etc. Obama's rise to frontrunner status was, then, a sublime exercise in reversal, not just Hillary's unexpected defeat in Iowa but the unraveling of an interminable year in which the story was her "inevitability." (What could be dramatically duller than inevitability?) After Iowa, news outlets exaggerated the story of Hillary's fall, in the process convincing viewers that it was far more dramatic -- and fatal -- than it really was. And now, like a blessing from Heaven, they get to tell the story again: a double reversal!

Now everyone's rubbing their hands together and drooling at the mere mention of the superdelegates -- the wild card in this wild narrative, the deus ex machina that could throw the whole process into chaos come August -- as though the superdelegates were crazed mutants of unthinkable power, straight out of a Stan Lee comic, and not just a bunch of BlackBerry slaves in flannel pants who might know a few more things about national politics than you or I or Anderson Cooper.

But chaos trumps even a reversal -- something Aristotle would certainly have understood if he'd had cable -- and if you're sick unto death of how the media have made Barack and Hillary, two admirable candidates, look like snotty, vicious sandbox fighters, you'd better strap yourself in for Superdelegate Smackdown, coming soon to every TV, blog, periodical, and iPhone in the known universe.

Until then, we'll have to satisfy ourselves with the occasional snarl from Howard Dean (what I wouldn't give for the innocent days of the Dean Scream!), the inevitable if temporary migration of pundits back to Hillary's camp (it's only a matter of time before someone drags out the old dated vs. married adage), and endless opinions about What's Really Driving Bill.

That is, if we don't first get swamped by the growing national crisis that is Hannah Montana, aka. Miley Cyrus, who apparently allowed (or didn't allow) Annie Leibovitz to take topless photos of her (though she isn't actually topless) for Vanity Fair against her parents' wishes (or with her parents' full knowledge). Depends who you ask. But please don't ask Disney, which has more or less perfected the stance of Idiotic and Hypocritical American Outrage, furiously charging that "a situation was created to deliberately manipulate a 15-year-old in order to sell magazines."

Can you imagine?

Forget about the silly photos, one of which People informs us exposed Cyrus's midriff (gasp!) and another in which "a hint of a bra is evident." (Have these people ever been to the mall?) Forget about how gosh-darn "embarrassed" Hannah Montana is about the whole terrible affair and the sad truth that her public statement -- "I never intended for any of this to happen and I am truly sorry if I have disappointed anyone" -- comes verbatim from the Handbook for Disgraced Public Figures. And forget about how obvious it is that the whole stupid issue has been cooked up and manufactured by publicists in order to gin up controversy and draw attention to Cyrus's forthcoming memoirs. (Yes, it's true, a 15-year-old is publishing her memoirs -- and reportedly was given a seven-figure advance.) Forget, even, that that advance, and publishing contract, come from none other than Disney.

Instead, think on this: The same corporation which feigns outrage at the "manipulation" and accuses Vanity Fair of just trying to "sell magazines," and which has almost certainly created the entire hullaballoo just to sell its own product, is also the corporation which owns ABC -- and with it George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson -- and created the pathetic outrage that was the most recent presidential debate.

It would be disgusting enough if they were just trying to sell me a magazine. But the load of shit they're really selling has a much more dangerous objective. That is, that the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama and Clinton, Iraq and health insurance and Hannah Montana will all get stirred into the same idiotic, phony pot, to which the only rational, human response is to throw up our hands and scream, "Who the hell cares?"