LIKE AN AMWAY SNUFF FILM

It will not surprise you to learn that I don't watch a lot of Fox News, although it's fair to point out that I don't watch TV news in general these days. For a while I watched a decent amount of it, almost entirely for the comedy value. Then around 2002 it stopped being funny and started to resemble propaganda that sounded better in the original German. Now I see it every month or two for about 15 minutes in the waiting room at my doctor's office (he is also the last person on Earth whose "These Colors Don't Run" bumper sticker is not ironic).

Look, there's nothing more trite than pointing out that Fox News is stupid and resembles "news" only inasmuch as one considers a turn-of-the-century Hearst newspaper to be news. It has evolved, however, from bad, comically slanted news into an entire alternate universe of news and news consumption. Its guests and "experts" appear only on Fox. Its hosts spend half of their time interviewing other personalities on the Fox payroll. Roger Ailes sends out daily memos reminding his on-air "talent" to reiterate the RNC talking points. It is to the media what Amway is to consumer goods – a cult-like organization of true believers who promise to fulfill all of your needs but insist that you sever ties to anyone outside The Family. What's that? We can't find any experts to appear on-air to promise that tax cuts for the wealthy will create jobs? So what! We'll just make our own experts!

Watching highly paid Fox News Personality Sarah Palin being interviewed (in a sense, at least) by highly paid Fox News Personality Sean Hannity, one cannot avoid the question of who on Earth could possibly watch this willingly…and perhaps even take it seriously. Watch 60 seconds of that if you can stomach it. It has the production quality of a snuff film produced by a poorly equipped high school A/V club – the clip art graphics, the "a hostage is about to be beheaded" lighting, the cheap, echo-y sound reminiscent of something recorded in an empty garage with a single, poorly placed boom mic…it all appears to have been thrown together with great haste and absolutely no concern for whether or not the audience would think critically about any of it. And that hasn't even touched on how stupid the words coming out of their mouths sound. Watching Hannity lob softball after softball at this idiot and seeing her swing and miss every time isn't just painful, it's the very definition of a farce.

Conservatives enthusiastically argue that all news networks are equally biased and therefore any one is as good as the others. This is of course nothing but a defense mechanism, and an understandable one at that. We all watch what flatters our own ideological predispositions, but surely any sentient person watching Fox knows, on a very deep and basic level, that he is watching not actual news but performance artists doing their impression of news. Right? I mean, throw me a bone here. Tell me that people who watch this are self aware enough to realize that it's essentially entertainment programming. They don't actually watch this network and think "I'm watchin' the news! I'm learnin' important stuff!" do they?

Do they?

Then again, I suppose that in a world in which print and online media routinely run unedited press releases as news items and Pam Geller has a six-figure readership I should not be shocked that people can watch this pile of shit and convince themselves that it is Shinola.

AT LONG LAST, HAVE YOU NO SENSE OF DECENCY?

In the latter half of the 19th Century it was common for presidential candidates to engage in what we call "Front Porch Campaigning." In short, they didn't campaign at all. They stayed home, perhaps emerging onto their porch (hence the name) to speak with the media for a few minutes once or twice per week. Convention delegates and party bigshots would bring important people (read: the wealthy) to the candidate's home instead of the candidate hitting the road and holding fund raisers.

There were several reasons for this, some of them practical. During the party-dominated era of nominating conventions before the advent of primaries, the candidate was nearly an afterthought. The party didn't much care who it nominated so long as he was, as a delegate said of Rutherford Hayes, "present (at the convention) and not considered overly obnoxious." Accordingly no one really cared what the candidate had to say. Elections were affairs of dubious honesty during that era, with party loyalties and voting behavior driven by a delicious stew of patronage, graft, fraud, and naked threats of violence. The candidate was a warm body, hence our post-Civil War string of anonymous bearded Ohioans and upstate New Yorkers in the White House.

The other reason, and the one that the parties were much more vocal about at the time, is that it was considered crass for candidates to do something as low-brow as campaign. It was seen as shameless groveling for votes, entirely unbecoming of such a high office. Over time, of course, this "taboo" fell by the wayside as more candidates began relying on their oratory (William Jennings Bryan and Teddy Roosevelt, for example) and populist appeals to build a base of support.

Today we'd be shocked if a candidate didn't campaign actively, but we still have certain expectations about how they should campaign. There is a level of decorum or dignity that we expect. It doesn't surprise anyone to see McCain or Obama on a talk show in a suit, maybe cracking a few jokes to emphasize their oneness with the common man, but it would be surprising to see them dressed in overalls (no t-shirt, of course) wrestling in pig shit to try to win a few more rural votes. Some things – participating in a pro wrestling match, taking pies in the face on D-list TV talk shows, or telling fart jokes on the local Morning Zoo radio show, perhaps – are just "beneath" a presidential candidate.

You know where this is going.

"Sarah Palin's Alaska", despite the premiere bringing in good ratings for a cable reality show, is indicative of a candidate who is entirely unconcerned about toeing the line between campaigning and a cinema vérité Three Stooges performance. For someone seriously contemplating a 2012 presidential run, the extent to which Palin has turned herself into a reality TV character is nothing short of incredible. Andrew Sullivan recently declared her "The Republican Snooki" and noted that the two are identical inasmuch as "The only thing that can destroy her is ignoring her." But people will never stop paying attention to her because there is no depth to which she will not stoop for more attention.

Right-wing columnist Jennifer Braceras calls this new paroxysm of exhibitionism on Palin's part "flippin' embarrassing", to quote the Grizzly herself. Now that she is reduced to parading her children around on camera for sympathy and spouting catchphrases like some attention-hungry hack contestant on Project Runway, it is not clear how Palin expects anyone (except for the 15% of the country that already idolizes her and always will) to take her seriously. This new performance is one step up from appearing in the center ring at Barnum & Bailey with a ball on her nose. She doesn't need a campaign manager, she needs an organ grinder.

We know that Palin is an attention whore. All politicians are. But there are unspoken limits. One must "look presidential", which is defined as Potter Stewart defined obscenity – no one can explain it but we know it when we see it. This ain't it. This is the 15th minute of fame for a flavor-of-the-minute singer. It is the last grasp at a paycheck from a washed-up soap opera star. It is KISS on its 10th reunion tour too many. It is Police Academy 6. It is Jerry Rice trying out for the Broncos when everyone on the planet except him could tell he was finished.

When Braceras asks in her column, "Isn’t such low-brow exhibitionism beneath the dignity of a former governor and potential presidential candidate?" she misses the point by a wide margin. Palin is a potential presidential candidate only in her own mind at this point. She and Snooki are equally likely to be living in the White House in the near future. After willingly suspending herself over (and her family) over the dunk tank full of sewage at the reality TV carnival, everyone except Palin herself realizes that her next gig is more likely to involve hawking fishing gear on QVC than delivering State of the Union addresses.

FREE MARKET PROGRAMMING

America is a bit of a mess at the moment. We are rightly preoccupied with the half-dozen serious issues we currently face as a society: double-digit unemployment, 19th Century plutocrat levels of income inequality, two ongoing wars, global terrorism, and an upcoming election. So it only stands to reason that the heavyweight of investigative journalism on American television – CBS's 60 Minutes – would devote this season's premiere episode to a hard-hitting piece on New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Among other things they learn that he is wildly popular in New Orleans. But it's not a fluff piece; they investigate claims about the accuracy of his arm by having him throw footballs at any number of semi-humorous targets.

How did we get here?

Let's jump back to 1960. American households with televisions received a tiny amount of broadcast news each day, at least by our current standards. People basically got the three major networks – ABC, NBC, and CBS – each of which carried a half hour each of local (think Ron Burgundy) and national (Walter Cronkite) news. More importantly, they all offered their news programming at the same time in the evening. This had two important implications. First, the amount of news on TV was comparatively small. And second, the networks' news programs competed among themselves. CBS news was on opposite NBC and ABC news, so the ratings competition was news vs. news vs. news. The way to win that hour was to provide news programming that was more appealing (although as today's ratings prove, that does not necessarily mean "better") than the other networks.

Then cable came along and broke the stranglehold of the major networks. We started to get lots of channels, and St. Ronnie reminded us that choice and competition are the greatest of all gifts. Then CNN came along (followed a decade later by Fox News, MSNBC, and so on) and gave us 24-hour news. No longer would we be slaves to the networks' schedule. We could get news whenever we wanted it! Freedom! Freeeeeeeeeedom! Just think of how much better informed our society will be when people can watch news 24-7.

Today we see that cable has indeed brought us choice – hundreds of channels, in fact. A cornucopia of dreck. A panoply of bullshit. We can watch anything at any time: news, comedy, movies, infomercials, porn, sports, "educational" programming, and endless varieties of prefabricated reality. The concept of the evening "news hour" no longer exists. The local news is still a fixture (although its actual news content is pitiful) but The News has essentially been farmed out to the heavyweights of cable. In theory this should not make a difference or it should work out to a net positive: more news, available when we want it.

The problem, of course, is that the news no longer competes with other networks' news; it competes with the 800 channels of entertainment that pump out alternatives around the clock. Yes, "serious" news shows like Meet the Press or 60 Minutes are still on. Yes, CNN et al provide news around the clock. But news programs and networks are no less ratings-driven than anything else on TV, and most people aren't that interested in watching news when they could be watching reality shows, sitcoms, sports, and what have you. The question is no longer how to get people to watch CBS News instead of NBC News. It is how to get people to watch CNN instead of Bulging Brides, college basketball, and House marathons.

Over the last decade or two we have seen what the benevolent invisible hand of the free market has done to our news. To compete with entertainment programming it looks more and more like it every day. It has become news in name only. "News" about celebrities, sports, consumer goods, and other trivialities moves from the back sections of the paper to the banner headlines. Networks linger for weeks over real but irrelevant stories like Natalee Holloway, the release of the iPad, and so on. What real news they cover is presented in carefully tested "entertaining" formats – usually a split screen or roundtable of people screaming at each other – with perhaps a full minute devoted to each Big Story of the Day.

The media is a business and it exists to make money. On TV, it does so by attracting viewers. The news networks are relied upon to provide an important public service, but they are not public servants. Neither are they a charity. They need to get and hold your attention, and today that means successfully competing with hundreds of channels offering programming that is much more interesting to an average viewer than the news. The competition between news and entertainment has produced a combination of the two that no longer fits either definition.

We want to be entertained more than we want to be informed, much as we would rather have candy for dinner than eat our vegetables when we are kids. Thus in broadcasting, "competition" is just another word for "race to the bottom." It may not be right to force another person to eat vegetables, but when the plate of broccoli is offered on a buffet alongside a thousand varieties of ice cream, cake, and pie, we know goddamn well what we'd have to do to that broccoli in order to persuade any customers to take it.

JOHN HAWKINS IS A STUPID PERSON

Intellectual Chernobyl's resident fratboy – how sad is it to set the bar at Goldberg / Brietbart and still be unable to clear it? – lets "the establishment" know that it gets 7 things wrong about the TeaTards.

1. The Tea Partiers have a radical agenda!

Nobody believes this. It is a sad, Koch-funded rehash of the last 50 years of ultra-conservatism under a new banner. Birchers -> Moral Majoritarians -> Dittoheads -> Teabaggers. Same group of idiots, same ration of horseshit for ideas.

2. These Tea Partiers don't believe in compromise!

Hawkins explains how Washington defines compromise as "giving the liberals everything they want." With Teabaggers in power (suspend disbelief for a moment and imagine it) there will be compromise, redefined as giving the Teabaggers everything they want.

3. The Tea Party is driving away moderates!

No, it's just nominating drooling assheads who can't win general elections.

4. The Tea Party is knocking off important Republicans we need in D.C.!

Put a period after "Republicans" and this is true.

5. These Tea Partiers are just Republicans who will fall in line once the GOP gets power again!

Fall in line with whom? The sane members of the GOP? I'm sure the 'Baggers will be perfectly willing to John Hawkins Compromise with whoever is in power.

6. These Tea Partiers don't understand how politics works!

The Hawk allows that "there are plenty of people at Tea Parties who aren't all that hooked into politics" and "it's fair to say that some of the candidates the Tea Party has backed have turned out to be duds." He goes on to argue that "establishment" Republicans (Crist, etc.) do not understand politics. Having punted the question of whether Teabaggers understand politics, he moves on. That said, Things Tea Partiers Do Not Understand is the longest book in the English language and, when translated, will give Remembrance of Things Past a run for its money.

7. These Tea Partiers just want to say "no" to everything!

Hudson Hawk explains:

Right now, our country is like a car that's heading toward a cliff at 100 mph and the people in charge want to simultaneously speed up and cut the brake lines. Are we supposed to say, "Why don’t we meet you in the middle? Cut the brake lines, slow it down to 55 mph, and we'll stop all our backseat complaining about that cliff. Deal?"

In other words they say no to everything and will continue to do so until everyone perceives politics through the same paranoid, reactionary lens. Or to put it more poetically:

Put a balanced budget amendment, term limits, and a repeal of Obamacare on the agenda and watch how quickly Tea Partiers say "yes." But, until we get the barrel of the gun out of this country's mouth, we have to keep saying "no" when we're asked for handfuls of bullets.

Kind of an odd analogy from a group of people who spend a substantial portion of their time hand-loading ammo in their basements. I mean, who else do we ask for bullets?

BOLDLY OBJECTIVE

Webster's defines "bold" (adjective) as follows.

1a : fearless before danger : intrepid, b : showing or requiring a fearless daring spirit
2: impudent, presumptuous
3: (obsolete) assured, confident
4: sheer, steep
5: adventurous, free (a bold thinker)
6: standing out prominently
7: being or set in boldface

Aside from "standing out prominently", which I do not think is a widely-held understanding of what "bold" means, none of these are good descriptions of Sharron Angle's statements. A bold statement in the context of an election would be something like "I guarantee you that I'm going to win in November!
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" or "You're goddamn right I said Social Security needs to be eliminated." Backpedaling from all of the crazy-ass crap one has said during a life in politics is the antithesis of boldness.

No, bold is not the right adjective here. What CNN means is "ridiculous." Perhaps "idiotic" or "retarded" would do as well. But of course a Serious, Mainstream, Legitimate News Agency has to be Objective. One cannot say that something that is clearly retarded is clearly retarded. An editor came along and changed the author's original "ridiculous" to make sure that no one's feelings are hurt, even though it changes the statement from an accurate one to an inaccurate one. Accurately describing reality results in terribly biased reporting. One must be Objective. Think of what a shit fit Bernard Goldberg and Sean Hannity are going to throw if CNN uses the right adjectives to describe Republican candidates.

Objective, of course, means means making every viewer and elected official feel like his or her viewpoint is valid. Right? Isn't that what it means?

Oh.

I guess it actually means "of, relating to, or being an object, phenomenon, or condition in the realm of sensible experience independent of individual thought and perceptible by all observers." Well that won't do! How are we going to keep the right-wing bloggers happy if we accept that we don't all get to make up our own reality?

Political journalism, in all seriousness, is worse than our sports journalism at this point. Really. When Brett Favre plays like shit, the headline will say "Favre Shitty as Vikings Lose." If we let the Washington Bureau folks write the headlines, we would learn that Favre threw three bold interceptions and an outspoken fumble.
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ISSUE-ATTENTION CYCLES

Anthony Downs' An Economic Theory of Democracy (1957) is among the most widely read and influential works in both economics and political science (a feat made more impressive by the fact that it contains no data, but I digress). For me, however, Downs' finest moment came later in his career when he defined the "Issue-Attention Cycle" in Western democracies. It remains the single best model for describing social and political reactions in the United States to a sudden, overwhelming crisis – famines, riots, disasters, outbreaks of disease, and so on. The Haitian earthquake and the Gulf oil spill were great examples. The 1980s Ethiopian famine was another.** And on this 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I can't get Downs' theory out of my head.

The cycle has five stages.

1. The pre-crisis stage: All of the conditions exist for a crisis, but no one is interested. No attention is paid to the underlying, obvious, and persistent problems that will eventually become the crisis. In New Orleans, everything that led to the disaster was apparent to anyone who cared to look, although no one did. Staggeringly inept and corrupt local political leadership. Crumbling, inadequate infrastructure. High susceptibility to natural disasters. Stark racial divides and nearly city-wide grinding poverty. Poor to nonexistent Federal emergency preparedness.

2. Alarmed discovery: "Holy balls," says America, "New Orleans is an impoverished hellhole bitterly divided by race and drowning behind broken levees known to be inadequate for the past several decades! And the Federal government doesn't give a shit! No one is able to compensate for the appalling shortcomings of the local government!"

2a. Euphoric enthusiasm: "We can fix this! We're America! Honey, get my wallet. Let's send $25 to the Red Cross. Everyone get on board! Pull! Pull!" The problem, however, is understood as exogenous to society, thus the problem can be solved without any fundamental reordering (or even reappraisal) of society itself. No one asks sticky questions about entrenched racism or decrepit, disintegrating cities. That would be hard. The problem can – nay, must – be solved the same way Americans solve everything: throw some money at it and never think/speak of it again. As the saying goes, they will call you a hero if you feed the poor but a Communist if you ask why there are poor people who need someone to feed them.

3. Realizing the true costs: "What, you mean my $25 donation didn't fix everything in Haiti? It didn't feed sub-Saharan Africa? It didn't drain, dry, and repair New Orleans? WTF." At this point the public realizes that the problem runs much deeper and would require substantial resources and sacrifices to fix. When everyone realizes that $100 million in charitable donations and a few billion in international aid were barely enough to make a dent in the problems in Haiti or New Orleans or Banda Aceh or Bam, we are taken aback. The problem, we realize, stems from something that benefits vast portions of the population. Americans benefit from squalor in other countries. Suburbanites save money by abandoning cities and letting them rot. White people benefit from a black underclass. All Americans take advantage of desperate, exploitable Mexican labor. We like cheap oil made possible by unspeakable things done in oil-rich regions. So the real problem is…us.

4. Declining interest: People have one of three reactions to the realizations that accompany Step 3. They grow discouraged from the enormity and seemingly insolvable nature of the problem, they get bored, or they suppress it because thinking about the social changes that would be necessary to address the problem is frightening. So the number of news stories peters out, and 24 hour coverage becomes twice hourly coverage becomes twice daily coverage becomes something that isn't covered at all outside of specialty niche media.

5. The post-crisis stage: The name is misleading because nothing about the crisis has been resolved, but in the public mind it is history. We all did our part by pledging $25 to the Red Cross, and since the stories are disappearing from the TV and newspapers we can only assume that the problem has gone away (like that whole genocide thing in Darfur!) It will occasionally pop up again – the odd news report here or there, often on anniversaries – but for the most part we are through with it. More importantly, some other "new" issue is entering Stage 2…

As many of the Five Year Reflections will tell you about Katrina, a lot has changed. There is rebuilding. Some people have come back. The city carries on with its social events as usual. But in a more important way, nothing has changed. Many of the problems that caused the crisis, not to mention many lingering problems caused by the last crisis, persist. New Orleans is still poor and divided. Large portions of it still look like disaster areas five years after the fact. The local political leadership is corrupt and incompetent. The infrastructure remains poor in New Orleans, not to mention every other city in the country (Didn't a highway collapse in Minnesota or something? I don't remember.) However, lacking a public, media, or political class willing to do anything except slap bandages on gaping wounds before moving on to the next one it should come as no surprise to see retrospectives about New Orleans as the Brave Little Toaster, trying to get back on its feet while ultimately failing.

The current news items struggle mightily to remind us that problems still abound and the crisis isn't over; the problem is that for most Americans, no matter what evidence is placed before them, it is. We have not only moved on to new issues but also to our favorite way of obliterating social obligations to think or care about problems – blaming the victims and washing our hands of the issue.

**See Bosso, C. (1989). Setting the agenda: Mass media and the discovery of famine in Ethiopia. In Manipulating public opinion: Essays on public opinion as a dependent variable

BREAKING NEWS

I was stunned to see this press release from Fox News this morning. The key excerpt:

In light of the saturation coverage Fox News Network (FNN) has given the controversy over the proposed mosque at the former World Trade Center site, we feel it is fair to point out to our loyal viewers that 7% of News Corporation, the corporate parent of Fox, Fox News, and Fox Business Network, is owned by Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal through his Kingdom Holding Company. We have taken great pains to conceal this information over the years, referring to the Prince only as "A significant stockholder of the Company, who owns approximately 7% of the Company's Class B Common Stock" in our annual report to the SEC (page 44). But given our viewers' and on-air personalities' strong reactions to Islam, we feel compelled to note that News Corp is partially owned by a certified Muslim (see photo) who regularly patronizes mosques.

Additionally, News Corp has acquired a 10% stake in Rotana, a Saudi multimedia conglomerate that bills itself as "the Arab World's largest entertainment company." We have found this investment in a company that produces Arabic language movies and music that occasionally veer into anti-American tropes popular with Middle Eastern audiences to be quite rewarding.

Finally, in the interest of keeping our position as America's only source for Fair & Balancedtm news, we would like our viewers to be aware of the $1,000,000 contribution News Corp recently made to the Republican Governors Association. These funds will help the RGA mount a consistent attack campaign against Democratic candidates and the incumbent President. FNN viewers should keep this information in mind when considering the network's claims of objectivity.

What refreshing honesty!

INTEREST, AND LACK THEREOF

There are a lot of things I do not like but very few things about which I do not care in the least. The list is pretty short. Opera. Basketball. Country music. Fishing. Academic analysis of pop culture detritus (No, really, the world is aching to hear your Marxist-Feminist critique of Season 3 of According to Jim). Literature written before 1800. You might find these subjects very interesting and/or they may be very important. That's fine. I just don't care about them. At all. Hey, at least it's a short list and I can admit it.

I'm supposed to like everything about politics. Nothing in the universe of modern American politics is supposed to be uninteresting to someone in my line of work. But despite being a person whose personal Do Not Care list is pretty short and a Official Professional American Politics guy, the frequency with which I cannot bring myself to care about the ostensible headline stories on the news is starting to alarm me.

Take this "Ground Zero" Mosque thing. We are on day three of saturation cable TV and internet coverage. People, I swear on my eternal soul, this stack of Bibles, and the original Shroud of Turin: I could not give less of a shit about this "story" if it took place in the middle of the Country Music Awards. It doesn't even hold my interest long enough to listen to people venting steam about it and to process their opinions. I don't have a lot of respect for talking heads but I have to tip my hat to the people on cable TV for talking about this for three days straight. It can't be easy to do that much talking about something so mind-bogglingly irrelevant.

Many years ago Ted Carmines & James Stimson did some highly influential public opinion work categorizing different kinds of political issues. The simplest meaningful classification is not "social" vs. economic, but Easy vs. Hard issues. Easy issues are easy because it requires no information to have a quasi-meaningful opinion about it. Abortion is an easy issue. Yes, some people are well-versed in the legal and medical intricacies of abortion, but for most people it is a case of For It or Against It. I think it is immoral or I don't think it is immoral. And either way you can't prove me wrong. Gay marriage, right-to-die, mandatory English, and other "hot button" issues like that are good examples of Easy issues. Hard issues, conversely, require information to form a meaningful opinion. Tariffs or environmental regulations are hard issues. That's why we don't talk about them.

To put it mildly, we and our media are ass-over-teakettle in love with Easy issues because god knows the viewing public doesn't have information about anything and wouldn't usefully analyze it if they did. We love talking about stupid crap – Did Obama take a vacation at the wrong time? Should we build a mosque at Ground Zero? Should every candidate wear a flag pin on their lapel? Can the Ten Commandments be displayed in government buildings? – because these issues allow us simultaneously to talk out of our asses and offer an opinion that is as valid as any other. The mosque issue, for example, starts from the shared understanding that, yes, it is physically and legally possible for a group to purchase real estate and build a mosque just about anywhere. From there it essentially becomes "I think they should!" versus "Grr! Over my dead body!" And I would rather watch my rats bat a cardboard toilet paper tube around the cage than listen to, watch, or read that.

When nobody is right or wrong, what is the point of arguing? Who finds that interesting? To me, watching that is like watching a soccer game in which both goals were sealed off with bricks. When it's impossible to score you quickly realize that what is supposed to be an entertaining competition is just a bunch of idiots running around aimlessly.

IN SOVIET RUSSIA, SCANDAL FABRICATES YOU

I once spent four days at a conference in Branson, Missouri. It is far from the worst place on Earth – being safe and having indoor plumbing puts it ahead of a lot of the globe – but it most definitely earns its status as a punchline. It looks like a giant dragon that craps chain restaurants rampaged through the town, narrowly missing the countless ex-celebrity entertainers whose careers have gone to Missouri to die. Among the latter, famously, is 1980s comic sensation Yakov Smirnoff. He doesn't simply have regular gigs there. He has his own theater.

Yakov, for those who don't remember him, made a career out of a single running gag: he was That Soviet Comedian. Nearly every joke followed the now-infamous pattern of "In America you have _____, but in Soviet Russia we had ______!" The only deviation was for the purpose of reinforcing American stereotypes about the USSR, i.e. "First time I went to Disneyland I saw Space Mountain. Big building with no windows, everyone inside screaming. I said 'Hey, we have one of those in Moscow!'" Moderately amusing, until you hear the next 50 jokes and realize that they're identical. But I digress.

Obviously he camps out in Branson because kids who are 20 and under today were born after 1990 and thus the Soviet Union means about as much to them as the Holy Roman Empire. They can't tell you what "communism" is aside from its status as the Bad Guys in action or war movies. Stalin, Brezhnev, perestroika, SALT, the Domino Theory…these terms mean nothing to them. Since Smirnoff's comedy depends entirely on stuff like this, his career can only survive if he finds audiences that remember it. Enter Branson, where the average age of vacationers is in the high sixties. All of them are old enough to remember the Cold War, and some of them are senile enough to think it's still going on.

Fox News has been taking notes of Yakov's success and has adopted its own Branson Strategy with its latest balls-out effort to fabricate a scandal: the "New Black Panthers" voter intimidation "story." I mean, how the hell old do one's viewers have to be before the Black Panthers are a relevant cultural reference? Even the USSR was relevant until 1991. The Black Panthers haven't fueled the paranoid fears of white people since the early 70s at best. When even the commenters at well-known conservative websites don't buy this pathetic effort to make something where there is nothing – OMG, two black guys were standing outside a polling place! Why, no, we can't produce a voter who claims to have been "intimidated" out of voting by said Colored Men! – you know the goal isn't to convince viewers on the merits of the case. It's an unsophisticated attempt to remind viewers for whom that group is relevant, i.e. your grandparents and anyone else over 70, that intimidating, heavily armed, and hostile black people are coming to take away Our Way of Life.

Even by Fox's standards, this "story" is ridiculous. Apparently they feel that enough old white people are watching to make an appeal to 1968 nostalgia worthwhile. I can't wait to see what throwback they dredge up next to connect with their demographic. Baader-Meinhoff? The Symbionese Liberation Army?** Sacco and Vanzetti? The Sans-Culottes? Among its many other assets as a media outlet, it appears that News Corp is making a much appreciated effort take viewers on a trip down memory lane in its comical attempt to engineer public opinion.

**(Keep an eye out for my SLA musical, "From Tania to Cinque", which should be in theaters near you soon)

STRIKES, V.2010

When Thomas Frank wrote in 2000 about the decline of labor reporting in American newspapers since the 1970s, he summed up the prevailing attitude by the late 1990s as "Unions are obsolete and strikes are sad." Strikes are no longer indicative of any underlying labor dispute, and certainly not extensions of any social or class conflicts (America having magically purged itself of the concept of class in the Reagan years). They are simply sad things that happen that make people fight and end with companies losing money and people losing jobs. The most damaging change, however, was the abandonment of the idea that the interests of management and labor are – or even could be – different. The 1990s revolution of Third Wave whiz-bang techno-capitalism, complete with video montages of the crumbling Berlin Wall and other tomahawk dunks of the free market, told us all that the interests of management and labor are one and the same. Strikes, unions, and class conflict are little more than personal vendettas and grudge matches played out by New Deal era relics who are too stupid and too stubborn to accept the inevitability of progress, refusing to accept the new, improved future in which the wage-grubber and CEO join hands and stride proudly onto the broad, sunlit uplands of post-regulation capitalism. Federal law prohibits the pre-1930s practice of setting up bogus "company unions" to derail organizing drives, but that is no longer relevant: the entire country is a company union now and we're all members.

In the interceding years, news coverage of labor issues has further degraded – which is to say that it is essentially nonexistent. The coverage of the pilots' strike at Spirit Airlines has abandoned any pretense of talking about labor-versus-management. Instead it focuses on passenger inconvenience, the quintessential "What's in it for me?" angle. Don't talk about the issues, just tell me if my flight has been canceled and how I can use my iPhone to get a refund.

No matter how many coats of sugar we apply over the issue with corporate propaganda and compliant, unquestioning journalism (due in no small part to the consolidation and successful union-busting in the print journalism industry since 1990) our society and economy really haven't changed that much. Workers and their employers are in a fundamentally adversarial relationship. The Company wants to get as much work out of you as possible at the lowest cost, and if they find a way to do your job more cheaply they will do it. You want to work as little and get paid as much as possible, and if a higher-paying job comes along you will take it. They are trying to fuck you, and it is in your interest to see to it that they do not succeed. That truth is fundamentally absent from labor journalism these days, which is unsurprising given the anti-union position of the newspaper industry and the generation after generation of brainless 23 year old journalism students with little practical skill aside from writing bland, inoffensive copy and sucking up to their corporate masters.

That said, the Spirit Airlines strike is an excellent example of how 21st Century strikes are born and play out. Management is emboldened by decades of compliant legislation and judicial willingness to strip away regulatory and labor protections. Labor is endlessly frustrated by the continued degradation of the things that have always defined "good jobs" in our society – benefits, pensions, reasonable hours, and good salary. The emboldened management acts like a swaggering caricature of John Wayne; the exasperated employees dig in their heels in an effort to salvage pride if not a better deal. Basically, picture two people holding a revolver to one another's head and saying "Don't push me, or I'll…"

The end result of this dispute is most likely going to be the collapse of Spirit as a viable airline, which feeds into the "strikes are sad" storyline. But the important questions go unasked. What kind of system produces management willing to burn their company to the ground rather than pay their pilots wages in line with other bargain basement airlines? What kind of system produces employees who would rather strike and possibly lose their jobs rather than continue to work under the existing conditions? Examining the underlying issues that produce this kamikaze approach to negotiation would require not only more effort than we are willing to devote to any issue but the admission that, believe it or not, labor and management are fundamentally in opposition – not to mention that they are engaged in a death struggle over a piece of a rapidly shrinking pie.

We can probably do better than "Unions are obsolete, strikes are sad." But even good labor reporting under the current economic circumstances would probably conclude that labor-management disputes are like two bald men fighting over a comb.