Media Noise: The Year of Living Predictably

While the media hyperventilated, nothing all that surprising really happened

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Illustration by Stephen Kroninger for TIME

Nothing much happened in 2010. Oh, I know there was a lot of frothing and screaming. There was outrage aplenty. There was an election. Wars were fought. Humongous pieces of legislation were passed, but — with the exception of health care reform — few broke new ground and many, like financial reform, were compromised and massaged to the point of lugubrious semirelevance. Even the enactment of health care reform, a true American milestone, was kicked down the road to 2013. Indeed, compared with earth-shattering 2008, or even the forces marshaled in 2009 to arrest an economic cataclysm — the bailouts and stimulus package, which really did do their respective jobs — 2010 will be regarded by historians, I fearlessly predict, as something of a neon hologram.

The Republicans did win a grand victory in the midterms this year. But that was historically inevitable given the stalled economy, unemployment of 9.8% and the President's questionable decision to spend an inordinate amount of time and political capital enacting health care reform. In 1994, Bill Clinton, who overreached on the very same issue, lost both houses of Congress with unemployment at a mere 5.6%. Still, despite the Republican tsunami, Obama's approval rating remained remarkably stable, in the mid-40s, not bad at all given a putrid zeitgeist and a half-crazed, screechy opposition.

There was the illusion of progress in Congress's lame-duck session, although it's hard to describe politicians voting for tax cuts as even vaguely heroic. We have now had two stimulus packages of relatively equal size in two years — one Democratic, one Republican. Both were flawed: the Democrats wasted too much on their pet governmental projects (and lavished money on the profligate states with too few strings attached); the Republicans, brilliantly hypocritical, squandered tax cuts on people who didn't need the money after spending the entire election season screaming about deficit reduction. In 2011, we'll see if the Republican brand of stimulus produces anything better than the muted results of the Democratic plan (and it may well, building atop the economic hole the first stimulus filled). A new, modest arms-reduction treaty with the Russians passed, with the support of conservative Republicans like the two Senators from Tennessee, who refused to listen to the radical xenophobes who control their party. Homosexuals were allowed to serve openly in the military, which was good; but the children of illegal immigrants were denied a pathway to citizenship by completing college or military service, which was bad. This was a curious historical marker: homosexuals now seem to be more "acceptable" than children who, through no fault of their own, grew up undocumented in this country — a grudging step forward, a spite-filled step back.

Not much happened overseas, either. The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq proceeded as planned; the Iraqi leadership huffed and dawdled, as expected, before forming a government. Afghanistan drifted along inconclusively, although David Petraeus brought a sense of order to the American military effort — and his autumn sweep through the Taliban heartland set the stage for the possibility of a more stable 2011. Iran remained intransigent, but some very creative diplomacy by the Obama Administration built an international coalition and led to tough economic sanctions dedicated to stopping Iran's nuclear program. The North Koreans acted crazy. The Chinese and Indians (and, more quietly, the Brazilians) advanced toward center stage in international affairs. The Europeans began to confront the consequences of their overly generous welfare state.

And yet, if you watched the news — especially the epileptic seizure that passes for news on cable television (and in certain precincts of the blogosphere) — you'd think that we were facing Armageddon, Sodom, Gomorrah and the last days of Pompeii all at once. This was especially true of Fox News, which emerged in 2010 as a full partner and funder of not just the Republican Party but also of that party's loony-tunes conspiratorial extreme. On the other side of the barricades, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann had more than a few moments of solipsistic self-righteousness (and his contributions to political candidates were no less questionable than Rupert Murdoch's, if not nearly as large). Even modest, moderate CNN continued its descent into breathless irrelevance, overwhelmed by a thundering horde of hoary political consultants, overanalyzing every quotidian hiccup and microscopic movement in the polls.

The effect of all this noise is to make it seem as if something drastic is happening, even when nothing really is. It becomes near impossible for us to accurately gauge the state of the nation — and it becomes utterly impossible to deal with abstract long-term threats like climate change, a flaccid educational system and the economic cancer caused by financial speculation. This is the precise opposite of what the media should be doing. It is a far greater threat to the Republic than the Sarah Palin circus or the anarchy of Julian Assange. It gets worse with each passing year, and I see absolutely no cure for it.