Steve Almond

Must see TV - an hour a week on the real issues

By Steve Almond
August 17, 2008
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I RECENTLY finished reading a book about cattle and this paragraph really stuck in my craw: "After the cow digests its grass for a time, it sucks the pulp - called the cud - back into its gullet . . . Extra chewing has the effect of increasing surface area onto which bacteria may latch. Chewing also has the side effect of stimulating the saliva glands."

I spent a week or so trying to figure out why I found this summary of bovine digestion so eerie. And then it dawned on me: The passage provides a precise description of the election coverage provided by the cable news networks.

It was all there - the endless regurgitation of lurid headlines, the gnawing insinuation of the anchors, the bacterial latch of the pundits, the perpetual desire to induce drooling in the viewer. The orgy of coverage over John Edwards's affair provides a case in point. As does the kerfuffle over that political ad featuring Britney and Paris.

The conduct of the cable guys has become so laughable that an entire cottage industry of mockery - led by Jon Stewart - has arisen to index its folly.

Meanwhile, everyone (the candidates included) agrees that the crises facing the nation have never been more dire: a recession, two wars, global warming, and the dwindling of cheap oil, to name just a few.

But there's a robust irony here, hiding in plain view. The dawn of the endless news cycle means that producers have more time than ever to fill.

Given these facts, I'd like to issue a challenge to CNN or MSNBC or some other brave network to produce a weekly show that deals exclusively with a single pressing issue, and objectively analyzes each candidate's policies with respect to that issue.

Here's how such a show work. It would require dumping all pundits, pollsters, and campaign operatives in favor of non-partisan sources (scientists, economists, and the like) whose only allegiance is to policy and its effects on the electorate. No replays of misleading ads, or sound bytes.

Instead, a reasonably intelligent host would articulate what the candidates propose to do about, for instance, our energy policy. Rather than rely on political distortions, unbiased experts would tell us the realistic dividends and costs of off-shore drilling (John McCain's magic cure) or dipping into our Strategic Oil Reserve (Barack Obama's silver bullet). They would also provide details on how much the candidates plan to spend on alternative sources of energy, where they stand on fuel efficiency standards, and subsidies for oil companies.After all, beyond all the rhetoric and cheap stunts - tire gauges, anyone? - the candidates do have distinct energy plans. Wouldn't it be nice to learn what they are? Or to learn what the candidates propose to do about our occupation of Iraq, our tax policy, our health care system, or economic woes?

If star power is an issue, why not invite the candidates to present their own plans and give the host to a mute button, should they lapse into attacks? I can already hear the network suits out there howling about how such a show would be too fact-heavy, too "boring" for our simpleton electorate. But as anyone who's had to watch CNN in an airport for more than 30 minutes can tell you, political coverage as it now exists is crushingly boring, an echo chamber of smears and counter-smears.

In such a milieu, might a show of substance actually succeed, by dint of novelty if nothing else?

After all, not all Americans are as stupid as those TV execs treat them. There are still citizens - of every political persuasion - who regard the electing of a new president as a vital act of governance, not a blood sport, or a soap opera. There was a time, long ago, when the members of the Fourth Estate actually believed the same thing.

So that's my big pitch, folks. One hour per week devoted to the issues that will determine the fate of our republic.

It's a lot to ask, I know. Especially with so much delicious slander and innuendo floating out there. But it might just sell a little popcorn. And who knows, it could result in the sort of thoughtful discourse worthy of a mature democracy.

Steve Almond is the author of "(Not that You Asked)."

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