James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association, a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media, and a professor of communication studies at Whitworth University.

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Winter Olympics & Hollywood suggest why politicians lie–or lose

Posted by James McPherson on February 24, 2010

“Remember when the Internet was supposed to kill off television?” asks a front-page story in today’s New York Times, before going on to point out that for at least some kinds of television, the Web actually boosts TV ratings. In an era in which families now no longer watch television together, the Internet lets people “talk” to each other about what they’re watching.

Also this morning, in a typically excellent commentary for NPR, Frank Deford marveled about the fact that NBC’s Olympic coverage one night last week beat even “American Idol” (a show I must admit that I can’t stand, and have never watched in its entirety, despite its huge following).

NBC won the night despite the fact that its “coverage” of Lindsey Vonn’s gold medal downhill run appeared hours after she had won and presumably after almost anyone who cared knew she had won. (Incidentally, I also find it interesting that the Olympics are a big TV hit, despite the fact that most Americans wouldn’t watch a non-Olympic ski race on a dare.) In fact, many people probably watched because they knew she had won. Or because they knew she had won.

“Perhaps this suggests that at this time when there is so little good news in America, when we do not enjoy the everyday success we used to rather expect, when we are so at loggerheads as a people, that there is something comforting about us coming together to watch a beautiful young woman, struggling with injury, secure in our knowledge that she will raise Old Glory on high,” said Deford. More important, I think (though perhaps too obvious), was his preceding statement: “Evidently, we would now rather revel in an assured triumph than suffer through a live competition with a problematic outcome.”

Well, yeah. Americans hate bad news. That’s why most American films–focus-group tested into homogenity–come with tidy, happy endings, usually (as I heard the great Roger Ebert note years ago) with a crowd of onscreen people cheering the heroes so that we might know to cheer along with them.

Now some DVDs come with alternate endings, and I asked students today to share examples they had seen. Apparently the main characters ended up dead in “The Butterfly Effect” and struck by lightning (though, unfortunately, not fatally) in “Sweet Home Alabama.” Many films now offer alternate endings, typically darker than the originals.

Unfortunately the “happy ending” syndrome extends to American public policy. We all know the economy, the environment and health care have serious problems. But we certainly won’t stand for some politician telling us bad news that really means anything–as in, we need to sacrifice something to fix the problem–and in fact would vote him out of office if he did. So they all promise wonderful things that we won’t let them deliver, and then blame the lack of resolution on the folks on the other side of the aisle.

After all, every American has also been conditioned to know that for every hero there must be a villian, whether that villian is a scheming movie girlfriend, a Russian ice skater, a Democrat or a Republican.

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