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John Feffer

John Feffer

Posted: August 10, 2010 02:29 PM

When Reality Shows Collide

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The big news in the reality TV world is the intersection of Sarah Palin and Kate Gosselin. The Alaska governor is preparing her own show called Sarah Palin's Alaska (who sold her the state?), while Kate Gosselin runs her own pimp-my-children show called Kate Plus Eight. Kate has reportedly brought her kids up to Alaska for a big scramble through the woods that will be filmed for all to see in the fall.

Reality TV is everywhere -- among Washington housewives, Jersey Shore denizens, cupcake bakers, Donald Trump wannabes. These shows are fast, cheap, and out of control. And very, very popular. Their influence has permeated popular culture and, alas, politics as well. When President Obama recently appeared on The View, he was asked whether Jersey Shore star Snooki should run for mayor of Wasilla (Sarah Palin's old position). Jeez, why ask the president of the United States about the military budget or U.S. policy toward Somalia when you can query him about using a reality TV star to torture the residents of a benighted Alaskan town?

Reality TV has reached the White House. So when will reality TV come to foreign policy?

Foreign policy is reality, you might point out. But a four-hour C-SPAN hearing on U.S.-Japan relations is not reality TV. Such a hearing unspools in real time, focuses on issues rather than personalities, features no unusual special effects, and has virtually no sex, violence, or ruthless competition. On TV, we want our reality varnished to a high gloss. Real reality is a bore.

To a certain extent, the Pentagon brought reality TV to foreign policy when it embedded journalists during the invasion of Iraq. The Pentagon saw embedding as a compromise between the free-range journalism of the Vietnam War and the banish-the-journalists approach of the first Gulf War. The Pentagon believed that the gritty reality of the Vietnam War, as captured by unrestricted reporters, caused a nosedive in popular support for U.S. involvement. In reality, as John MacArthur points out in his book Second Front, only a handful of reporters from the mainstream media broke ranks to challenge the official U.S. government version of the Vietnam War, and then only in its later stages. Nevertheless, the Pentagon went on to severely restrict media coverage of U.S. wars in Grenada and Panama in the 1980s and then essentially censor all coverage of the first Gulf War.

For the second Gulf War, embedding was a way of controlling without directly censoring. The Pentagon in essence created a reality TV show where it controlled the horizontal and the vertical. "This war was a TV show on a new scale with as many 'events' as a televised Olympics," writes Danny Schechter in his book Embedded. "Media outlets were willing, even enthusiastic participants in presenting the made-for-television spectacle." Americans react very negatively to the notion that they are being censored. But we are okay with infotainment.

If war has become a reality show, what's next? Perhaps Hillary Clinton will soon have her own show, which features a heavily spliced diplomat's tour of the world, with asides on her favorite restaurant in Tokyo and where she gets her hair done in Moscow. Some foreign leaders are way ahead of the United States. Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan leader, runs his own largely unscripted Sunday show "Aló Presidente," which has inspired similar shows by the leaders of Bolivia and Ecuador.

Will Obama and Ahmadinejad soon follow suit? Then, instead of having a war between the United States and Iran, the two leaders can appear on each other's reality TV shows, like Kate and Sarah, and have a dance-off or sing a song in front of Simon Cowell or compete to make the most delicious meal in 30 minutes out of lima beans, veal cheeks, and radicchio. The loser has to give up his country's nuclear program.

Why stop with just two leaders? I envision a new "Survivor" series on climate change, in which the G20 leaders all meet on the rapidly disappearing island of Ghoramara in the Sundarbans between India and Bangladesh. They have six months to come up with a plan to cut global carbon emissions, and each week they can vote off the island a different pig-headed leader. If they don't come up with a plan, they all have to stay put until the island disappears and them with it: Survivor/No Survivor: the Global Warming Edition.

Although I would certainly prefer a televised cook-off between Ahmadinejad and Obama to a war between the two countries, television and foreign policy in fact shouldn't mix. As Neil Postman write in Amusing Ourselves to Death, "Television... serves us most usefully when presenting junk-entertainment; it serves us most ill when it co-opts serious modes of discourse -- news, politics, science, education, commerce, religion -- and turns them into entertainment packages."

Best, then, if Obama remains blissfully unaware of Snooki and she of politics altogether. And let's all hope that Sarah Palin stays in the world of reality TV, and doesn't have to pretend in two years' time to have a foreign policy when she steps out onto her porch to look at Russia.

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