Although you'll never see celebrity journalists discussing it on TV, one
reason the country's in such terrible shape is the media's substitution
of political "infotainment" for news.
It's cheaper and easier to feature chatter by Washington insider pundits
than, say, to keep a functioning news bureau working in Baghdad or
Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's arrest for allegedly trying to auction
off President-elect Barack Obama's Senate seat started a veritable
avalanche of idle gossip, witless speculation and downright character
assassination such as we haven't seen in this country since-well, since
Whitewater, actually, the most elaborate shaggy-dog story in U.S.
history. On cable TV, they were partying like it was 1998.
It's not as if there's nothing serious to talk about. Recently we've
seen Republican senators, mainly from Southern states with heavily
subsidized foreign auto factories, scuttle the Bush administration's
emergency bailout of U.S. car manufacturers purely to stick it to the
unions. Who do these guys represent, Tennessee or Nissan? Alabama or
We're talking 3 million American jobs here as the economy spirals
In Washington, the bipartisan Senate Armed Services Committee issued a
report blaming high-ranking Bush administration officials, including
then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for appalling human rights
violations against detainees in Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan. Whatever is
to be done?
Could these events have motivated the Iraqi reporter with the
suspiciously strong throwing arm who made himself a folk hero throughout
the Arab world by pegging his shoes at President Bush's head?
A big-league second baseman couldn't have been more on target. Will Iraq
ever become a U.S. ally as conservatives claim? Has the "war on terror"
really made us safer?
None of those tedious subjects, however, stimulated anything like the
punditocracy's gleeful response to the Blagojevich bust.
Granted, the Illinois scandal has definite comic appeal. According to
U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, the publicity shy prosecutor who turns
up so regularly on national TV, Blagojevich even tried to shake down
Children's Memorial Hospital, for heaven's sake. The governor appears to
wear a nutria fur toupee on loan from an Elvis impersonator. Illinois'
lovely first lady apparently has a mouth on her like Tony Soprano.
As a New Jersey native married to a woman born in Louisiana, however, I
can't pretend to be shocked by any part of the Blagojevich scandal,
apart from his astonishing stupidity. A friend who knew him when they
were young prosecutors together characterizes Blago as the kind of
public servant who'd dismiss domestic violence charges simply because it
was Friday afternoon. Everybody in Chicago knew the fool was under FBI
If convicted, Blagojevich will join his predecessor, Republican Gov.
George Ryan, in the big house for pretty much the same crime-peddling
government services to the highest bidder.
Granted, the mention of Obama was bound to set off Republican political
operatives desperate to make a dent in the president-elect's
stratospheric approval ratings. Even though that mention consisted of a
transcript of Blagojevich's tape-recorded obscenities in reaction to
Obama's infuriating refusal to play ball.
According to the federal indictment, Blagojevich "said that the
consultants . . . are telling him that he has to 'suck it up' for two
years and do nothing and give this 'mother****** [the President-elect]
his senator. **** him. For nothing? **** him.' "
Fitzgerald made it clear that neither Obama nor anybody on his staff is
Media response to this disappointing news has been a lot like
Blagojevich's, albeit without the bleeps. Obama's clean? Well, what
about the "gathering shadows"? He's appalled? So how come it took him 24
whole hours to call for Blagojevich's resignation?
According to The New York Times, "[A]ccusations of naked greed and
brazen influence-peddling have raised questions from some about the
political culture in which the President-elect began his career."
Notice the passive voice. The Times itself isn't asking, only "some."
On MSNBC, veteran scandal-monger Michael Isikoff spoke darkly of "a web
of interconnections between the Blagojevich's world and Obama's world."
Even Obama-friendly pundits such as The Washington Post's Eugene
Robinson essentially demanded that Obama prove a negative by responding
immediately to questions that he couldn't possibly know the answers to.
My personal favorite, however, had to be the Post's ubiquitous TV
talking head Dana Milbank. Reacting on CNN to the disappointing news
that Fitzgerald has asked Obama to delay releasing a list of staffers
who'd discussed the coveted Senate seat, Milbank complained that the
president-elect was trying to bore Americans to death by appointing
obscure nobodies to posts like secretary of energy.
The nobody in question would be Professor Steven Chu, Nobel laureate in
physics. Is there any wonder the U.S. appears scarcely capable of