Now and then I take my old copy of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield off the shelf. All story junkies love its opening line: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anyone else, these pages must show.” I confess: Because I’m a story junkie and because news stories are what we get as news, I’m a news junkie too. If the Dickens opening line hooks me every time, so does TV news: It tells me I need to figure out my role in the story I’m telling myself about the stories happening in the world. While that opening sentence from David Copperfield reminds me I have to find a good story to live in before I slip away into one of history’s black holes, the TV news offers me a chance to make a hero of myself.
During the hours I spend watching the TV news it’s easy for me to get nostalgic for the story O.J. Simpson had us living in for over a year. His story had everything: Sex and violence. It starred a handsome black NFL star and his blonde beautiful wife in a bloody who-done-it murder mystery plot that included a car chase, big name lawyers, and a tense courtroom drama that went on day after day until the breathtaking verdict came in that opened the door to sequels yet to come. Nobody in real life Hollywood could have fed me a better junk food story-line. I was hooked. The nation was hooked, like a gaggle of big-eyed fish.
The political stories coming out of the TV from now until November 6 election day can’t compete with the gripping power and dazzle of the O.J. serial. But between now and November 6 TV politics will provide me with story lines I’ll be weaving into some sort of tale. If the networks hooked me into a plot with a rising action featuring O.J. in an uphill race to outrun his murder rap, this season’s 24-7 political episodes will be running everyone down to the climax on election day. I’m a sucker and I’m weak, like a few normal people I know: I take the hooks, if not all the lines, so I forget to think long and hard about whether I’m wasting precious time on bad stories, whether hot-air political TV poisons the air, or what will befall when the falling action brings on boredom too dull to interest me in big-time board meetings happening off-screen.
Political stories have to compete for my attention against formidable same-old action fixes––a burning hut or rocket fire in somebody’s war, a riot in somebody’s neighborhood, a flood, a storm or forest fire on somebody’s turf, a juicy red murder in somebody’s basement. As I swallow gobs of fast-food news I seldom feel a thing.
Fortunately I have a rapid-fire barrage of commercials to keep me from being sickened by fast-food thrills and chills. For every half-hour of TV news I’m also offered at least twelve minutes of TV ads, most of them devoted to pills certain to make the general public’s arthritis and sexual impotence improve. The pricey pills, of course, have another use: They’re good for paying the fees for making more TV ads designed to comfort us, while warning us about the side effects of the pricey pills––the rashes, headaches, blindness, diarrhea, heart attacks, nausea, lawsuits, and humiliations caused by four hour-long erections that require medical and/or psychiatric help. These side effects have their own side effect: When we get medical and psychiatric treatments our insurance rates go up. It’s news to me that so many things can go wrong from taking a pill, and I’m so grateful for useful news that I think these ads should be subtracted from the twelve minutes of ads.
Since almost all news stories are downers and I can’t always depend on pills to cheer me up, I can always find myself in the heart-warming human interest episode that comes at the very end of newscasts. In the heart warmer someone normal does a good deed, survives a terrible disease with dignity and grace, or saves a cat from certain death in a sewer. From now until November 6 the heart warmer will restore my faith in humanity and make me feel good again until the next station break occurs and political ads return to work their storybook magic on me.
It’s not hard keeping score of the news stories I love. My mother always used to tell me she didn’t want to ask me twice to do this or that, so I know that hers is not the voice on the telephone that so far this month has called me twice to ask my opinion about this or that. Opinion polls are like scoreboards at sporting events. They not only tell us whether we’re winning or losing the game, they tell us what’s really happening on the field so we don’t have to pay attention to the game. On a daily basis I have polls telling me what peoples’ opinions are, mainly about questions I would never ask. At any moment I can learn from polls whether I’m a winner or loser, who to blame for everything going wrong, and whether I should change teams or find some other country to live in. Some seers swear that the poll numbers on graphs make for better viewing than the talkative pols, perhaps because polls have more character. It’s also exciting to enter a news broadcast wondering whether the numbers, like Wall Street tics, are going up or down. The day is coming when pollsters in Las Vegas will track––with scientific accuracy plus or minus a point or two––the public belief mood swings that occur from the beginning to the end of each half-hour TV news programs we watch. I’m betting on it.
Campaign managers, whose coffers are a royal flush bloated with funds with religious commitment to job growth, should be credited for their job preservation skills. Unless I send in a few bucks to my favorite candidate so I can claim I’m making the news, a political ad is one product I buy without directly paying for it myself. One problem is that I’m never warned about the ad’s dangerous side effects. Though the biology lessons we learned in high school should raise some red flags, I never see any warnings on even the most unreadable print on the TV monitor about one very troubling side effect: The unseemly consequences of incest. Those who run TV news are in love with political campaign managers, and their love affair is conducted behind closed doors in the wide open marketplace. Because election time is our nation’s off-holiday shopping spree season, it’s easy to turn a blind eye to the invisible ways politicians and newsmakers share the same beds, off and on, with a few nods and winks. Together they create what’s new, from an unholy union of fact, fancy, and flesh that spawns cacophonous bodies with talking heads.
Because talk about incest is taboo, a code of honor must be upheld: The incestuous partners are held to a vow of silence, except when the very noisiest ads disturb the peace. Those noisiest ads then move over into the eighteen minute slot: They become the news. If on occasion it is acceptable to air complaints about the media being too liberal or conservative, it is impolite for the media to inform us that politicians often say things that are absurd and false. Best to be polite when journalist-politician bedfellows need each other so deeply and therefore need honor and obey each other.
Where does the bulk of the money come from to make TV political ads, and where does it go? Most of it comes from millionaires and billionaires with a few million to dispose of as chump change to enhance their private enterprise purposes. And a healthy part of it comes from sponsors who sell us pain and impotence cures with their disclaimers about life-threatening side effects. A lot of other ads come from companies that want to lubricate our downer trends by solving our energy problems without mentioning any side effects at all.
What is obvious is that long political seasons––no matter how ugly or negative––are good for the economy of those who can afford to play the game. Though political coffers are overflowing with enough money to start new businesses in thousands of hurting communities, we keep depending on polls and pols to know who to blame for failing to satisfy our desires and needs. Those in the business of news will have something to brag about to their bosses as they rake the ad money in. We can’t blame them for doing their jobs so well. We know that political TV works because we know that negative ads, in particular, work. Polls tell us that negative ads do a lot to shape the opinions people express in the polls and voting booths. So there’s no need for TV industry people to hire anyone to contradict the ads with facts, or to reject them entirely. Those in the news business work hard, and effectively, a lot harder than those of us who spend so much time hooked on their story-lines we don’t have the time to do the real work of political life.
I’m a news junkie because I take my David Copperfield seriously: I love a good story line, especially one that will make a hero of me, give me a place in society that validates what’s humane, fair, reasonable and responsible. In my election season story, the one that carries me away with it when I turn on the TV, I become a hero when my heroes win, a loser if they lose. If my heroes win on November 6 I’ll enjoy a whole night’s worth of cracking jokes at the villains’ expense. If my heroes lose I’ll be left with nothing more than being really sick and tired of all the gaming that’s gone on. The David Copperfield in me expects something better of me than either of these election night results. If my news junkie story crashes on November 6 I’ll be stuck having done nothing politically useful with all the time I wasted watching the talking-head cheaters smile at me on TV, the way O.J. did when most of us were pretty sure he got away with murder, with that smile on his face.