America Needs Intelligent Television

Date May 15, 2008

I dislike television. I invariably have a profound feeling of squandering my time when I watch it, so for more than a decade I used mine only to watch movies. I’m embarrassed to admit that I actually paid for cable for years as part of my high-speed internet connection, but couldn’t be bothered to hook up the TV. With the stakes of this election season, however, I emptied my pockets to upgrade my cable so that I could have access to the cable “news” channels (Fox, CNN, MSNBC). With great anticipation, I skipped back and forth between channels, trying to absorb all the information and analysis of the primary season.

I ultimately landed on CNN because they seemed to really try to offer perspectives from both sides of the political divide. I kept an eye on Fox, so that I knew what Karl Rove was telling the right to think. And I avoided MSNBC because Keith Olbermann’s anger at Bush was simply too personal for me to feel like I was watching news (when I want anti-Bush vitriol, I call my mother).

As the weeks passed, though, so did my interest level. Soon, I could only bear to turn on CNN late in the evening of each primary contest, just long enough to catch the preliminary vote counts. I was confused: the hosts and guests all seemed intelligent, educated, “in the know”. Why weren’t they talking about anything useful?

Throughout the spring, for example, the focus was on the Clinton-Obama fight for the Democratic nomination. Each time I tuned in to CNN, they would re-explain the delegate count, with representatives of each side giving their opinion about whether Hilary could catch up; what the reactions and implications were of each new super delegate who endorsed Obama (especially if she or he were a Clinton loyalist); should Hilary stay in, will it hurt the Democrats; did I mention the delegate count… I can understand that we might want to pass over these topics briefly on our way to something meaningful, but I sat there in disbelief as they came back to the same topics after each commercial break with a different set of .

Then I would skip to Fox, where Sean Hannity has an annoying habit of interrupting his guests after he asks them a question. I find it very agitating, because we never actually get a chance to hear what they fully think. When I actually caught myself muttering under my breath “will you stop so he can finish?!” I realized that either I had become an irritable, out of touch old man like my grandfather (but at the tender age of 37) — or there was something terribly wrong with our media outlets. 

Is this where most of America is getting its news and forming its opinions? Where is the average American supposed to go in this country to find a useful analysis of each candidate’s positions on the issues facing us today?  I realized with a start that not only was I not learning anything useful about what each candidate might do about the Iraq War, the economy, the environment, education… I’d actually forgotten that these problems even existed. I was lost in a world of political soap opera distraction.

They couldn’t possibly be doing it deliberately, could they? A few months back on CNN, Larry King and Anderson Cooper did back to back hours on Christie Brinkley’s public condemnation of her husband’s infidelities. I was speechless. I couldn’t care less. I had to work very hard to resist the conclusion that there was somebody upstairs in CNN’s corporate headquarters with a master plan of public distraction.

If I don’t have the time to read whatever policy papers each candidate has outlined, I can’t listen to NPR during the day because I work for a living, and I lack the mental horsepower to get my news from the more intellectual publications like The Economist or the Atlantic Monthly, how am I supposed to make a thoughtful decision in this high stakes election? What choice do I have besides defaulting to my political affiliation or voting my gut instinct?

I want something different; I want an opportunity for a transparent, honest reflection that educates me on the problems and each candidate’s solutions. I want a far more thoughtful and in-depth discussion of what each candidate is really planning to do, when president, about all the major dilemmas we face. I recall listening to an analysis of one of the early Clinton-Obama debates, and the commentators were remarking with disapproval that we had spent too much time on healthcare (something like 15-20 minutes). The healthcare crisis is complex, outrageously expensive, dragging our economy down, ruining the lives of millions of people, only going to get worse – and 15 minutes seems like an unusually long amount of time to devote to it? I want a debate devoted just to healthcare, with non-partisan subject matter experts to critique the strategies of each candidate! Then maybe I’d understand why the system is so broken and who has the best chance of fixing it.

We need a forum that brings the candidates (or their vetted representatives) together in a vigorous, more detailed examination of our challenges. Every night, for an hour of primetime television, put the key elements of a given issue on the table and make the candidates come clean about what they really plan to do. Critique the ideas. Give me a chance to see how thoroughly each of them can back up their speech sound bites. And most of all, educate me, the average American voter.

The short list of pressing topics:

The state of the economy.  How would they regulate or not Wall Street? What are the short and long term fiscal implications of their tax proposals? What do they think about the current national debt and the weak dollar and how would they address it?

The quagmire in Iraq.  I know McCain wants to stay 100 years and Obama wants to get out. Hmm, can I have some more details? I think the war is a complete disaster and that every life (US and Iraqi) lost there is a tragedy. We need to end it. But if we just pull out, it’ll become like Afghanistan in the 90’s. So I’m not in either camp. I don’t know what these candidates are really planning to do.

The destitute state of our international reputation.  The US has fallen from the city on the hill to the overweight bully-buffoon. How do we restore our moral authority as a country?

Dealing with Terrorism and the Middle-East. Obama proposes diplomacy, and talking to rogue nations (e.g., Syria, Iran). Bush and McCain call that pandering to terrorists — but their approach has clearly failed miserably. We can’t solve all our disagreements with the Mid-East/Islamic world with a gun; they obviously think very differently than we do about the world and our/their role in it. Is Obama too soft? Can McCain provide any diplomatic leadership? What is the alternative to either isolating or killing people (both techniques, by the way, if they fail, create more alienated terrorists)?

The complete drought of funds and support for US veterans of Iraq (and other conflicts). The waiting lists for psychological treatment are years long and more veterans commit suicide upon return than die in combat. This is a drama! It’s unacceptable. There should be a national uproar! Whether I think the war is noble or a sham, these soldiers deserve to be healed and reintegrated into our society. I want a detailed proposal for how to help them.

US Education. The immense amounts of money going into arms and the war, as our state governments (at least here in California) cut their education budgets, is maddening. This is not soft liberalism, this is hard-nosed business! We are gutting our ability to compete on the global marketplace by under-educating our children. If we don’t reverse this immediately we’ll join England in the club of ‘has been’ empires. Does either of our two candidates really have a plan behind their rhetoric?

Oil dependence. It’s not just that we are inconveniently dependent on a very unstable area of the world, it’s that we are careening towards a global energy and food crisis — and we’re not talking about it.

Re-establishing the lost integrity of agencies such as EPA, FDA, CIA, DOJ. They have been so corrupted by the political cronyism of the Bush Administration that they have suffered a cultural change as organizations. It’s not enough to just put a well-qualified leader at the top after inauguration. We actually need to reassert their right to be independent, to act in the best interests of the public welfare — to restrengthen their individual and collective commitment to the laws of the land. The baseline of what is “normal” needs to be methodically and radically raised by the next president or we’re going to become like all those corrupt 3rd world governments we read about in the newspapers.

The environment. How are we going to address global warming? What kind of leadership are we going to provide? What is our specific plan? How will we work thru the impacts that it might have on our economy? What is our strategy for addressing the exponentially growing carbon footprints of China and India?

Healthcare. What are the root causes of these untenable increases? What is the reality of each candidate’s plan? I still can’t figure it out behind all the spin. I would love to hear someone who is really knowledgeable about this complex industry help me understand the pros and cons of their respective plans.

The immense control that special interest lobbies have in Washington. We are back to a pre-Theodore Roosevelt era of corporate influence of our government officials. Should we pass legislation to eliminate lobbying? Everyone, red and blue, is disappointed and cynical about Congress. Why is that and what do they need to change? We complain about the politicians, but we’d all do the same were we in that system. What are the root cause fixes that could help them lead with America’s best interests front and center?

As these ideas formed in my mind, I became excited about them. I imagined being really engaged in a dialogue about our future, with more fact and less spin. I even thought I could watch it with my children and get them thinking early about where we are going as a country. As luck would have it, I soon thereafter met a TV anchor at ABC news and I floated my plan to him. Surely he would see potential power of such a show, and he was even in a position to act on it!

He let me down gently but firmly: clearly, the public wasn’t interested in such details. No one would watch such a show. They want sound bites and then entertainment. I was a bit crestfallen. It’s true that I’m hardly the type to have an original idea. Someone else must have already thought of, and dismissed, a similar plan. Or perhaps during my decade of television abstinence, that’s even how the current cable news shows started before veering into their current absurdities.

But then I thought of the state of the world, and I offered him the only clarity I had left: if we don’t think we want it, somebody should tell us that we damn well need it.

So I pen this as an invitation and a challenge to our current cable networks: be patriotic, help us as Americans to knowledgeably think about these issues before it’s too late. Otherwise, you can count on one guy for sure cancelling his cable subscription on Wednesday November 5th


Shayne Hughes


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