Jon Stewart, Food Stamp Gutting, and HBO’s “Newsroom”
WASHINGTON – The “award” I’m about to give is a nod to HBO’s new series created by Aaron Sorkin, “Newsroom,” and the idealist notion in the 24/7 media orgasma era that ratings don’t have to drive content. What you’re about to read is the story of a nation rotting due to the inability to place priorities above political greed and ideological corruption, with our entire media and journalistic community complicit in our moral decay. Those who pay the highest price don’t have a voice, a champion or anyone willing to put our collective duty to humanity on trial in a country that’s losing its soul.
Early on a warm summer Saturday, Chris Hayes and his MSNBC show “UP” may have started off with teasing James Carville would be on later to talk about Romney’s Bain unraveling and the Obama Team’s withering attacks, but turned first to the most un-sexy, depressing and politically shameful subject possible as the price to pay for viewers getting their political red meat treat: hungry people and starving kids in America. Who besides #Uppers, those die hard Chris Hayes fans, could be gleeful about the prospects of the first hour being devoted to the plight of the poor, hungry children, and big agri-business?
From Reuters earlier this past week:
Food stamps would see the largest cut, $16 billion over 10 years, in the House farm bill – $2 billion more than for farm subsidies and nearly half of all the savings in the bill. The cuts, mostly in eligibility rules, are estimated to reduce enrollment by 5 percent. A near-record 46.2 million people, or one in seven Americans, received food stamps at latest count. Enrollment rises during economic distress, such as the current lingering high unemployment. If enacted, the food stamp cuts would be the largest since $27 billion in a deficit-reduction package in 1996, said the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
It’s a subject few want to watch or listen to on Saturday morning at 8:00 a.m. eastern time, after waking from a Friday night’s pleasures with coffee or tea in hand, already fantasizing about the follow-up Saturday night debauchery to come; even if a bottle of wine and a really late Saturday night is as rowdy as it gets for some of us.
I am appalled, disgusted, ashamed and embarassed by Sen Harkin’s vote. I have lived in Iowa for over half my life and have regularly voted for Democratic candidates. After this vote by Sen. Hrkin, I truly do not know how I will vote when he is on the ballot. Corporate Farming seems to have won the day for him. Fraud and abuse? Show me the facts or should we just follow the money, as they say? – Sally (via email)
“Sally” was talking about what happened back in June when Senate Democrats voted against Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s efforts to rescue food aid. The list of Democrats standing beside Sen. Tom Harkin is long and includes vaunted “progressives” like Al Franken, Tom Harkin, Dick Durbin, and including Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, who also happens to chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Democrats now among the right-wing politicians who have decided to falsely promote the fraud and abuse aspect of SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called food stamps, that is relatively non-existent.
Poor people and the unemployed, including a large segment of children, are going to suffer even more because of Republicans, aided willingly by Democrats, are either drunk on austerity or are besotted to the pledge of corporate welfare over American suffering.
One of the men on Mitt Romney’s short list for vice president didn’t think what the Senate did went far enough.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, was one of 30 Republicans and five Democrats who voted against the Senate farm bill. He praised the “responsible reforms” to farm commodity programs but said the Senate bill didn’t do enough to “scale back the food stamp entitlement program,” which he noted accounted for about 80 percent of the cost of the legislation.
Chris Hayes offered a panel of expert analysts and guests that included people who had been helped by SNAP. Hayes ran a clip of Sen. Rand Paul pontificating about one millionaire taking food stamps as part of the “fraud and abuse” that warranted cutting SNAP, with Paul completely ignoring the innocent children who depend on the program, in favor of an outlier fraud case. The clip of Charles Krauthammer with Bill O’Reilly was equally offensive, a conversation that revolved around Americans wanting only a handout, instead of truly being in need.
It’s repulsive this is what masquerades as debate in our media and facts in the Congress.
What Chris Hayes did by leading with the farm bill story instead of the Mitt-Bain swarm is what Sorkin’s “Newsroom” is all about and he does it often. Important news stories taking priority over what might drive viewers to watch the train wreck that represents Congress and our big two political parties today. People who put corporate welfare above hungry American families and children, which is what both Democratic and Republican politicians have done recently, because Congress is now in the tank for the 1%.
If this country still had a soul the people would be collectively shamed into action. Instead, our media ignores what’s happening, letting Congress off the hook for their immoral priorities, while the American public remains ignorant, with much of it because they’re trying to make ends meet. We’re doomed if this continues and that’s not hyperbole.
Democrats bailing on the poor hit me deeply, as has their general rightward drift on everything, starting with the pending “grand bargain” that Pres. Obama already offered up, but especially the insulting dismissal of the importance of unions to the middle class and a living wage. This nonchalance is driven home by Pres. Obama and the Democratic Party’s choice of right-to-work North Carolina as their convention site. Further represented in full disgusting abdication when Democrats in Wisconsin actually picked a candidate to go up against Scott Walker who bragged “I’m not the union guy,” in Tom Barrett, who then refused to make the election about Walker’s efforts to dismantle unions, which was basically a template for completing the destruction of the middle class.
I was hit hard by the dot-com bomb when the dawn of the 21st century began, wiping me out and I didn’t have a lot to begin with. If it hadn’t been for my family I would have been forced to take federal assistance, because when I applied for a basic job like working in a flower shop to make money to have food to eat, they wouldn’t hire me. Not only was my writing resume and entertainment credentials going back to when I was a kid not what people wanted to see for a new hire, but every single person with whom I interviewed looked at me and didn’t believe I needed a basic job. After being gainfully employed since my teens, I quite literally couldn’t get hired anywhere, not even at minimum wage. I remember standing in the middle of the shopping aisle with my very last $20 bill trying to decide what food to buy with it, as I had my first encounter with a massive panic attack ripping through my body. My church loaned me $500 to help keep a roof over my head (eventually I paid it back). There’s much more, but I’ll leave it at that. So, I understand what the 2008 financial collapse has cost people and know personally what the story Chris Hayes covered this past weekend means.
The SNAP story isn’t sexy, but it’s important, because it tells a tale about this country, our politics and our priorities. It spells out our humanity, which is at present gasping for breath and life.
HBO’s “Newsroom” has been renewed for a second season. It thrills me that it has, especially if you saw the last episode. The monologue Jane Fonda, as “News Night” CEO Leona Lansing, unleashed on Sam Wasterston is one of the most important speeches I’ve heard in a television drama anywhere, delivered through perfect pitch emotion, sending a message of fierce urgency. Jane “I got where I am by knowing who to fear” Fonda was talking about people in Congress, in front of whom she has business, which is why she’s freaking out over “News Night’s” programming choices. Fonda isn’t just formidable as Lansing, she stole the entire episode and that’s saying something amid top flight performances across the cast. Fonda’s Lansing has award-winning written all over it, but the message her character is sending to the newsman in charge of “News Night” is bone chilling.
Fonda’s character reminds us what Hayes and everyone who programs content, no matter how small the company, is up against and why the media is failing us and the people no longer trust television news. From a recent Gallup poll:
Americans’ confidence in television news is at a new low by one percentage point, with 21% of adults expressing a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in it. This marks a decline from 27% last year and from 46% when Gallup started tracking confidence in television news in 1993.
At “Newsroom’s” core lies the truth of our media rot, where networks pick a political side to build up viewers, Fox going for Republicans, MSNBC going for Democrats, though they deserve credit for hiring and producing Chris Hayes, with facts often lying in rubble in between. Meanwhile, CNN struggles to stay alive and relevant through a cataclysmic loss in ratings battles brought on by terrible programming, but also because they’re not offering a spectacle. So desperate are they for ratings they actually blew what is arguably the most important Supreme Court case decision since Brown v. Board of Education trying to be first to get back in the game, instead of making certain they were correct. The result was their reputation was made worse, compounding a dire situation.
Enter Jon Stewart, the most powerful media mirror, who’s every utterance is considered gospel, which has been earned because he works at being factual. Unfortunately, Stewart has become so carelessly self-involved he evidently doesn’t understand we need what’s down there deep at the bottom of CNN’s founding heart a lot more than we need his laughs at their expense. Yeah, he vanquished “Crossfire,” which has been replaced by separate little cable shows all spouting their own partisan message. He’s not willing to consider what CNN once did is worth fighting to save. We need to be rooting for CNN to resuscitate itself, not piling on, as Stewart continually does, because there are reasons to do so (and here and here). Our democracy will continue to die a little more every day if someone doesn’t stand up for unfettered facts, objectivity, and getting it right instead of first, even if dull is the presentation. Putting news and stories that matter before head exploding partisan rhetoric that masquerades for important across cable, as well as every other news show trying to stay on the air. “The Daily Show” is brilliant political TV, but there’s a clear case to make for CNN and what it once did so well, especially since it’s the only 24/7 straight network around. “Newsroom” makes Stewart’s part in our media calamity clear: since he’s not pointing to the what’s missing in media, but only laughing at the train wreck, which has led to the rise in his importance, he’s not leading us anywhere but around in circles. Now, he’s obviously a comedy show, but why isn’t his critique leading at the very least to what’s missing, instead of round and round the network wheel? It’s not his job he’ll likely say, and he’s correct, but now that he’s on top we need it to be.
“Newsroom” is a reminder of what many dreamers like me still believe our work can mean to the American people. But it’s no mistake it takes place in a fictional world.
The “newsroom” I have provided as one of the pioneers writing on the web, starting in ’96, is an itsy bitsy window into why things are the way they are, told by someone who’s been in the entertainment business half of her professional life, writing the other half, while growing up in the most politically charged atmosphere of any generation. I began writing about the politics of sex, relationships and culture, telling the story of our world, our country and the people who inhabit it; political analysis, opinion, foreign policy, but also relationships and culture, including the good, the bad and the ugly of human experiences and behavior that foreshadows the future yet to unfold. It’s this “newsroom” attitude that pushed me to write The Hillary Effect, which is as damning a case on the media as has been made on what unfolded in the 2008 primary season that is historical in nature, with the facts proving my expertise and analysis, which is the reason I can stay afloat, if only barely. The odds remain against me in the long-term even as I plan my next creative venture, a jumping off point from my book. It’s 50-50 whether my tiny media company will survive, because the economics aren’t pretty at this point. It sure as hell won’t be for lack of purpose or passion, the proven track record I’ve earned, or the endless hours I spend upgrading my expertise. It’s about there being no room or appetite for independent voices to be heard anymore, with the financials pushing us out.
Chris Hayes and “Up” provided a glimpse of what’s needed this Saturday, as he does often, which is rare on cable. We all know what’s on Fox News Channel and it’s working for them as the most watched network on cable, though the people watching are far less equipped with the facts (see here, here); then there’s MSNBC, providing Democratic talking points, or faux “balance” like on “Morning Joe,” which is filled with elite conservatives, no matter the party represented on the teeter-totter.
Sorkin’s “Newsroom” is a reminder of the world in which the media, including independent people like me way down the stream, swim and why it’s so difficult to stay alive, let alone make a splash with important stories against the train wreck TV that drives ratings and money, but also how each person agreeing to play the ratings game, including what you choose to watch, pay for, and support delays the change needed to rectify what’s gone horribly wrong in this country.
Taylor Marsh, a veteran political analyst and former Huffington Post contributor, is the author of The Hillary Effect, available at Barnes and Noble and on Amazon. Her new-media blog www.taylormarsh.com covers national politics, women and power. The above column was originally posted at Marsh’s new media site.