News-Entertainment and Performative Politics
Where scripts have become scripture.
Almost two years ago today, I came up with the idea for my “Daly Grind” newsletter.
From a purely technical perspective, it was easy to set up. I had a good feel for the Substack platform through other publications I read, and its import feature let me bring over my email contact-list from my old MailChimp newsletter (which I almost never utilized, though a number of readers had signed up for it over time through my website).
Anyway, the point of me going from a once-or-twice-a-year mailing (usually to announce a book release, award, or event) to a weekly magazine-style offering (on a variety of topics), was mostly about building a new creative outlet for myself.
Sure, as you’ve assuredly noticed, I include book-purchase links in the “Daly Grind” (and I certainly appreciate those of you who’ve used them), but this project was (and still is) primarily about writing, sharing, and airing perspectives. I’ve picked up a good number of subscribers over the past two years, and I hope you’ve all enjoyed at least some of the content I’ve put out.
It’s been a nice little balance. My interest in storytelling is quenched by the Sean Coleman Thrillers. For politics, it’s my writing for Bernie Goldberg’s website (along with a few others). And when it comes to various thoughts on non-political things, I have the “Daly Grind.”
While I think I’ve done a pretty good of compartmentalizing the three, there are times when annoyances arise in one area, that I feel compelled to voice (or vent) through one of the others. This week, I’m going to do a little of that, while still trying to maintain some genre separation. We’ll see how well it goes…
Writing about politics has grown increasingly frustrating for me, and a key reason is the overly partisan, cookie-cutter nature of today’s prevailing political commentary. The most popular political narratives, by and large, are no longer construed from intellectually consistent principles and standards, policy positions, or even ideological beliefs (the things that have traditionally shaped people’s political views). They’re instead driven by news-entertainment narrowcasting.
By what? you might be asking. Let me break it down…
By news-entertainment, I’m referring to the performative, pro-wrestling (aka sports-entertainment) style of political news and commentary. It’s what we commonly see on cable-news networks and click-bait political websites, as well as from firebrand politicians trying to achieve celebrity status among their side’s most impassioned voters. The presentation basically comes down to themes of conflict, outrage, grievance, and crisis… often on a visceral level.
Narrowcasting (a term I first heard from commentator Chris Stirewalt — whose new book you should definitely check out) describes the antithesis of broadcasting.
When we think about traditional old-school broadcasting, what immediately comes to mind are the limited-choice days of the network media, in which relatively few outlets appealed to a very broad and diverse audience. We’re talking about millions and millions and millions of people, and because that audience was comprised of lots of different types of individuals, the content was generalized and at least intended to be inclusive.
Was it always? No. But it was certainly a goal of broadcasters.
With narrowcasting, an outlet targets and tailors its presentation to a much smaller, much more specific audience — one that shares common sentiments, biases, and even perceived enemies. Members of that audience tend to be very passionate, tribal, and emotionally invested in the narratives. When it comes to political news, such immersion harnesses and fuels partisanship, and creates sort of an exclusivity, where those in the club are “informed” of stories through a prism that confirms their preexisting views.
Such narrowcasters also provide the opposing arguments and perspectives purportedly held by the “other side.” Those views are reliably petty, unjust, immoral, or even radical (all bad stuff, of course). In reality, however, the positions often don’t reflect many (if any) people’s actual views. This is sometimes referred to as a straw-man or nut-picked argument (a derivative of cherry-picking, but where a “nutty” person with a very fringe view is portrayed as broadly representing a much larger group or movement).
In simplistic terms, the target audience is the good side, and those on the “other side” are bad. Nearly every story is framed to illustrate that. Some of those doing the framing may believe what they’re saying, but as someone who knows a number of people who work in narrowcasting, I can tell you that most, in fact, do not. They’re playing a role, and going along with it because the model is quite lucrative and affords them a good living.
While these people’s audiences are, again, a relatively small portion of America, the monologues they consume flow across to other narrowcasters who target the same types of consumers, and before you know it, the narratives become the defining position of that particular side. And because the two sides’ positions (and counter-positions) are so disconnected from each other, they come across like two entirely different languages.
What’s frustrating for a political writer like me — who doesn’t want to speak in either language, has no interest in becoming a professional commentator, sees nuance in a number of political battles, and refrains from adopting either side’s predictable, cookie-cutter narratives — is that political consumerism is now so binary in nature that it largely doesn’t matter how clear and consistent I am with my words and views. Dependent on who or what I’m complaining about in my writing on any given day, I’m reflexively cast as that side’s caricature of the opposing side.
For example, whenever I criticize Donald Trump, I’m immediately categorized by his supporters as a liberal Democrat (or at least an ally of liberal Democrats) who must therefore answer for the worst ideas, actions, and individuals from the progressive left. And when I criticize a Democratic position, policy, or individual, I’m immediately categorized by lefties as a Trump-loving, election-denying, conspiracy-theorist (or at least a MAGA ally) who must therefore answer for that side’s worst behavior.
To be clear, I’m none of these things. Both parties largely drive me nuts… though I tend to get along personally with people from both sides of the aisle (and everywhere in-between). I’m an old-school fiscal conservative who believes in stuff like individual liberty, strong character, personal responsibility, and sensibly hawkish foreign policy… which means I’ve been politically homeless for a number of years now.
Any reasonably objective individual who reads my political commentary would know these things about me, but that’s the problem… Most of the people I hear from anymore (on the political front) are far from reasonably objective. They’re committed, passionate members of one of the two major political tribes, and loyal consumers of news-entertainment narrowcasting.
I know this isn’t the case with all of my readers; I have the emails to prove it. And what I read in some of those emails would seem to shed a brighter light on the issue. Those who don’t subscribe to either side’s media-scripts are basically fed up with political commentary as a whole. They don’t feel like they can trust what anyone’s saying anymore. They used to think some high-profile, professional political-media figures were looking out for them, but they no longer believe that. They now think it’s all just for show and money.
So, while they appreciate some of us lower-tier folks still publicly speaking our genuine minds, they’ve mostly tuned out. And believe me, I get it. I’ve largely done the same. Six years ago, I had my DVR recording four hours of cable-news programs each and every night. Today, I don’t record (or watch) any, and I’m convinced I’m much better off for it. I’ve found alternative sources I trust for honest news and commentary, and couldn’t care less if they command millions of viewers, listeners, and readers… or just hundreds.
Still, it would be great for narrowcasters, as a whole, to put a renewed focus on informing viewers, rather than validating their views. I think it would go a long way toward mending a lot of the political polarization our country currently struggles with. But since it would also threaten a lot of media folks’ money and job security, don’t count on it actually happening.
In the meantime, I’ll keep calling things straight, and hoping that it one day comes back into fashion.
Sick of news-entertainment narrowcasting? Or do you think it serves a higher purpose? Let me know in an email or in the comment section below.
Obligatory Dog Shot
Whenever she finds a new hiding spot… he finds it too.
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A few weeks ago, in my interview with Sledge Hammer! creator Alan Spencer, Alan described how he (at the age of 15) wrote a number of jokes for legendary comedian, Rodney Dangerfield. So, I figured it was time to feature some Dangerfield vinyl in the ‘Daly Grind.’
There’s some confusion (on my part) about when Dangerfield’s “I Don’t Get No Respect!” album was released. The jacket says 1980, but since everything I’m reading on the Internet says 1970, what I own may be a re-release. Regardless, its stand-up-set is packed with hilarious jokes about Dangerfield… well… getting no respect. And the humor has held up very well over time.
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading today’s Daly Grind.
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Take care. And I’ll talk to you soon!