In 1959, JFK wrote an article in TV Guide talking about the influence of television on politics:
Television is a medium that lends itself to manipulation, exploitation, and gimmicks. Political campaigns can actually be taken over by the public relations experts, who tell a candidate not only how to use TV, what to say, what to stand for, and what kind of person to be.
I mention this quote in Poliwood, and covered the subject in Wag the Dog, which was not just an exploration of what happens when Washington exploits Hollywood's talent for selling fantasies, but ultimately its Machiavellian code of conduct in the area of messaging and public relations. Communication -- the ability to connect and manipulate -- is perhaps the most interesting part of politics we can observe, and the most frightening. JFK warned us, but no one listened.
When I arrived in Denver at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, I was amazed at the media spectacle of it all. We live in an age where television dominates our reality, and particularly our political reality. Everything has been turned into entertainment. Why does politics have to be entertaining? Because it has to be. Because it's on television all the time. If it's not entertaining, we turn it off. So the result is the media takes national issues and makes them our entertainment. Everything must garner some acceptable rating. Ratings represent money and that bottom line is the holy grail, which should surprise no one. Politics today is increasingly driven on conflict as the news uses entertainment techniques founded on conflict. Polarization is ideal to exploit for conflict.
This year, President Obama delivered a speech to the joint session of Congress on health care, one of the most important issues our country faces. No one really remembers what he said though. Why? Because of Congressman Joe Wilson's "You Lie" comment. We heard far more about "you lie" than the crisis of the health care system. The media dissected every aspect of the "you lie" story. The "for" and "against." The issue of "civility." Was Wilson going to apologize? How much money was Joe Wilson getting in campaign donations because of the you lie comment? An anonymous Congressman suddenly becomes famous because of an inappropriate statement and many real issues took a back seat.
I saw firsthand just how difficult it is to get matters of substance into the national dialogue as I followed a number of politically active actors, musicians, and writers through the 2008 election. As we explored the impact of entertainment and the media on modern day politics, you see that today's Washington political celebrities and politically active celebrities all have to survive a media circus. To quote a line from Poliwood, "How do you survive the media circus and not turn into the clown?"
Like any great invention, there are both positive and negative effects to television. It has been a terrific source of entertainment, some times educational, and always a part of our national identity. But the negative effects are more subtle, more covert, and we tend to ignore them. If we had only paid more attention to Kennedy's warning, would we be in a better place today?
Poliwood premieres on Showtime Monday evening, November 2 at 7:30 pm.