Friday, December 3, 2004

Sucking Up

Frank Rich writes about the NASCARization of America.

If Democrats want to run around like fools trying to persuade voters in red America that they are kissing cousins to Billy Graham, Minnie Pearl and Li’l Abner, that’s their problem. Pandering, after all, is what politicians do, especially politicians as desperate as the Democrats. But when TV news organizations start repositioning themselves to pander to Nascar dads and “moral values” voters, it’s a problem for everyone.


If the Nascarization of news were only about merchandising, it would be a source of laughter more than concern. But the insidious leak of the branding into the product itself has already begun. Last Sunday morning both NBC’s “Meet the Press” and ABC’s “This Week” had roundtable discussions about – what else? – the “moral values” fallout of the election. Each show assembled a bevy of religious and quasi-religious leaders and each included a liberal or two. But though much of the “values” debate centered on abortion and gay marriage, neither panel contained a woman, let alone an openly gay cleric. Allowing such ostentatiously blue interlopers into the “values” club might frighten the horses – or at least the hunting dogs.

A creepier example of the shift toward red news could also be found last weekend when ABC’s prime-time magazine show “20/20” aired an hourlong “investigation” into the brutal 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard in the red state of Wyoming. “20/20” added little except hyperventilation to previous revisionist accounts of the story, most notably JoAnn Wypijewski’s 1999 Harper’s article filling in the role crystal meth might have played in driving the crime. But ABC had obtained the first TV interviews with the killers and seemed determined to rehabilitate their images along the way. The reporter, Elizabeth Vargas, told us that while the pair had been “variously portrayed in press reports as ‘rednecks’ and ‘trailer trash,’ ” they were actually just all-American everymen with “steady jobs, steady girlfriends and classically troubled backgrounds.” Aaron McKinney, the killer who beat Shepard into an unrecognizable pulp, wasn’t even challenged on camera when he said he had “gay friends” (none of whom were produced or persuavely vouched for by ABC) and that he had only invoked a homophobic “gay panic” defense in his trial because that’s what the lawyers told him to do. What’s not to like about the guy?

The more the networks pander to the powers and the more they cower from presenting investigative news stories or even running commercials for a church, the further away they drift from the mission of broadcasting that was established nearly eighty years ago: to operate in “the public’s interest, convenience, and necessity.”