Now that the media’s latest circus has begun folding down its tents, its time to reflect on what its viewing audience has been put through. What would have happened if Miley Cyrus had been put in charge shutdown negotiations? (Don’t worry: Miley is only the lead-in here; we won’t be starring her.) Would the tone of the news from Washington have differed from the over-the-top show of shows we were force-fed? Dancing bears might have replaced the dour-looking politicians sulking in their dark suits. Instead of daily verbal jousts there might have been vigorous twercking. To make things even more fun, media showmen could have thrown in the Marx Brothers (posthumously). Their governmental credentials far outweigh those of Ms. Cyrus; in Duck Soup they single-handedly ran the country of Freedonia – right into the ground. Just imagine the spectacular musical number that could have resulted between Miley and Groucho: “Whenever life is making you frown, turn out all the lights in town – with a SHUTdown!” With these changes in place, the overall impression transmitted to us through our media could not have been more flamboyant than it was.
You have probably noticed that the media coverage of the shutdown was largely glitz-oriented. Gone are the days when serious newsmen like Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, or Huntley and Brinkley soberly reported actual facts. We have become an entertainment-centered culture, and the media gives us what we want with splashy and slanted coverage. If you’re conservative, you know where to go to see the situation portrayed from your point of view. If you’re liberal, you have your own favorite outlets telling the story from a leftward perspective. Either way, there was far more splash than substance in the stories that were spun about Shutdown 2013.
In fact, the coverage had all the features of a blockbuster movie sequel (something along the lines of the Star Wars franchise without the plot consistency). For example, movies usually require good guys and bad guys. The classic ‘50’s science fiction films cast aliens as the bad guys and Earth people (Americans) as the good guys. The classic westerns made protagonists of settlers and cavalry soldiers while sticking Native Americans (“Injuns”) with the antagonist role. In Shutdown! XVIII (Please forgive me if I have the number wrong; I read that there have been seventeen shutdowns since ’77, but I’m not sure if that number includes the latest debacle.) there were definite heroes and villains depending on your perspective.
If you’re left-leaning, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Utah Senator Mike Lee, champions of the Obamacare defunding initiative that triggered the shutdown, were among the villains. The media understood this, and played it up big. When Sarah Palin appeared at a political rally, the networks ran footage of her the way images of Goldstein were shown in Orwell’s 1984. I actually saw a woman reacting to the rally coverage in the way a loyal citizen of Oceania would have behaved during the daily ‘Two Minutes Hate’ sessions.
Blockbuster dramas always have memorable dialogue (“Make my day,” “I’m going to give him an offer he can’t refuse.”) The players in Shutdown! XVIII faithfully followed this rule. Senate majority leader Harry Reid tried to get off a good one by accusing the Speaker of the House of pursuing notoriety “at the expense of the country.” Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski topped him by declaring that “We are 33 hours from becoming a deadbeat nation.” Barbara Boxer, Senator from California, made Mikulski’s statement look tepid by comparing House Republicans to men “committing domestic abuse . . . ‘I love you dear, but I’m shutting down your entire government.’” Senate Chaplain Barry Black publicly prayed for God to forgive “them” for their “stubborn pride and foolish blunders.” Representative Steve Sutherland of Florida trumped Reverend Black by leading his fellow House Republicans in singing “Amazing Grace,” updating the finale of the 1953 film, Titanic in which the passengers reverently sang “Nearer My God to Thee” as the Atlantic waters swallowed them.
No blockbuster is worth anything without a good crisis, and Shutdown! XVIII was no exception. If James Bond is trying to diffuse a bomb that is set to go off in eight days, there’s no crisis. If Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy are aging at double the usual rate due to their contact with a space virus, they have plenty of time to play around with antidotes. But if the bomb is going to go boom in two minutes, and the aging rate is about ten years per day, we have our crisis. It’s all in the timing. No tension, no crisis. That’s why we were bombarded with quotes about the approaching apocalypse. Most players settled on 17 October as the day on which the world as we have known it would explode like Krypton.
Shutdown! XVIII was also up to par in supplying the time-worn tradition of comic relief. Shakespeare set the standard for this practice in tragedies like Hamlet in which two characters by the names of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern lighten the grim proceedings somewhat with their ineptness. Western heroes like Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy always kept eccentric sidekicks around for laughs. In the cinema classic To Have and Have Not, Humphrey Bogart was continually shadowed by his fumbling, alcoholic assistant Eddie, played by character actor Walter Brennan. Shutdown! XVIII offered us Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew who actually expressed his fear that the government might end up in the position of having to “meet its obligations relying only on cash on hand and incoming tax receipts.” I’ll leave it to you to determine the comic relief value of his statement. His follow-up after the shut down of the Shutdown was an expression of relief that the debt ceiling will now not be limited to a measly 16.7 tril. Surely we can see some skit material here. Alas, Abbott and Costello left us too soon.
To quote another famous movie line, this one from Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Because of the media’s show-bizzy presentation style, it’s hard to tell exactly where the rubber meets the road. Obviously, the matter of financing the government is a serious consideration. The politics of brinksmanship has a way of creating unease, especially in our generally uneasy times. But the sea of talking heads and the barrage of doomsday narratives flash-flooding us didn’t seem to be helping anyone toward a reasoned understanding of what was actually transpiring in our nation’s capital. Have we become like the people Jack Nicholson so angrily addressed in A Few Good Men? Is it true that we “can’t handle the truth”?
This is where skepticism comes in. The Thomas Jefferson quote we never hear is the one in which he expressed his belief that newspapers – the media of his time – should be divided into four sections – 1. Truths 2. Probabilities 3. Possibilities and 4. Lies. He contended that the fourth section would be the biggest. Are we believing what we hear on the radio as we drive or what we quickly take in on our TV and computer screens? How many of us take the time to examine the real story? Did we understand for example, that only about 17% of the government was actually closed during the “crisis”? Are we aware that through the years most government programs such as Social Security and Medicaid have been put on auto-pilot? Federal entitlement programs grow on their own annually without congressional action. When politicians discuss cuts in these programs they are referring to cuts in the increases, not cuts to what recipients are currently getting. The federal workers who were furloughed during Shutdown! XVIII will receive their pay for the days they missed. So why weren’t they simply kept working? Do we know that the federal government hasn’t operated on a real budget passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the President in years? These are just a few fun facts that many people may have missed. A Jefferson quote we encounter more often – although there is disagreement about whether he actually said it – is that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. Think skepticism.
As we consider all we’ve seen and heard lately in the media spectacular entitled – at least here – Shutdown! XVIII, maybe we shouldn’t be quoting movie lines; instead we should be referencing at least one classic popular music lyric. Ira Gershwin comes to mind with his famed observation that “it ain’t necessarily so.”