It Ain't Necessarily Bad That Nobody's Interested in Politics

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Bush's speech plays out on multiple screens at a Chicago television store

Memo to Television News Editors

Americans are just not interested in Washington. But, of course, you know that — you just don't know what to do about it.

Take the other night. A few minutes before George W. Bush's quasi–State of the Union speech (a speech that was given its inflated status by the networks), 51 million viewers were watching "The Mole," "JAG," "Three Sisters" and "Titus" on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox. The minute the four networks switched over to the interior of the House for Bush's speech, they lost 15 million viewers. And they continued to lose them during the rest of the speech.

Our democracy does not demand that every network televise a presidential speech. As long as one of them were to do it, allowing pretty much every American to see the speech who wanted to, that would be plenty good enough. But the networks, plus CNN and MSNBC, are afraid not to televise the speech. They're afraid that critics and pundits will call them shallow and mercenary. They do it so they can be perceived as good citizens. So why not just take turns from here on out?

Of elections and Ford Broncos

Thirty million or so viewers is not peanuts. But let's look a little closer. Very few of those 30 million watched the whole time. Most of them tuned in and tuned out. Which was pretty much how Americans paid attention to what was probably the most exciting and interesting election in all of our lifetimes.

One week before the election, a Pew poll showed that 61 percent of Americans said they had paid little or no attention to the campaign. That same number said they could not recall a single news story about the election. Fifty-five percent said they had not discussed the campaign with anyone. And this is one week before Election Day, in a race too close to call where neither man was an incumbent. That's massive indifference.

Interest in government picked up during the Florida imbroglio, but that's the equivalent of saying that curiosity about Ford Broncos increased during the O. J. Simpson trial. It's now settled back into our normal sense that what's important in life goes on everywhere else but Washington. "Americans care a whole lot more about what's going on at the Piggly Wiggly than in Washington," says pollster Jefrey Pollack of the Global Strategies Group.

The Ronald Reagan argument

Media people often label this a bad thing. They don't tell that to viewers because they don't want to alienate them even further. But you can make the argument that it's a sign of the health of the republic when people are not interested in Washington. If that government governs best which governs least, then lack of attention to government is a sign that government isn't meddling too much in people's lives. This is the classic Ronald Reagan argument that government is the problem, not the solution. He would have been happy had government withered away altogether — except, of course, that he would have been out of a job.

All of us in the news media have become addicted to the supply of news from Washington. It's a reliable and steady flow of material. That's nothing to be sneered at. The general alternative is even worse: the mindless pablum of celebrity journalism, the endless stories about self-promoting actors and movie stars who pretend they dislike the press.

And then there's "breaking news." Does news really ever break? Yes, there are real events such as earthquakes, but most news consists of what Daniel Boorstin once called "pseudo-events," concocted stories that are news only because we say they are. News organizations like to boast that they "cover" the news, but in fact, we all make the news because there is no news without us. With apologies to genuine metaphysicians, if an event happens and no one covers it, did it really happen? I'd say no. We in the media give events significance by how we play them and shape them.

W. H. Auden once defined poetry as news that stays news. The implication is that we're all in the business of the ephemeral. And we are. But that doesn't mean we ought not try to cover news that stays news, and by that I don't mean poetry but stories that concern people at the Piggly Wiggly, stories that have real meaning for the way people live their lives. And some of them may even come from Washington.