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Town Hall Tumult: Reform or Reality TV?

jeffrey-feldmanOver the past few days I have spent way too much time watching cable news coverage of health insurance reform town hall meetings. I cannot get my fill of angry Americans in high school gymnasiums shouting, “I don’t want this country turning into Russia!” at bespectacled and bewildered members of Congress.

Apparently, I am not alone. The Project for Excellence in Journalism reports that the raucous town halls drove the health insurance debate to the top of the charts in last week’s overall media news coverage, topping off even the dismal state of the supposedly recovering economy, Bill Clinton’s rescue of two journalists from North Korean prison, and the swearing in of Sonia Sotomayor.

It’s gripping TV, alright, but is tuning in for this town hall coverage an act of citizenship? Is this a health insurance debate we are watching?

Maybe a little of it is, but probably not much.

Sadly, I suspect it is not the part of my brain that leads me to care about the state of our democracy or health care reform that keeps me glued to the town hall turmoil on TV, but the part that led me to watch shows like Flavor of Love: my reality TV lobe.

Flavor of Love was a horrendous and enjoyable show. Oh, my, goodness, it was shamefully bad, but good fun to watch. Why? Because it presented a certain kind of thrill that is hard to find anywhere else: the excitement of watching people become unhinged. The inborn human desire to watch people — real people — fall apart at the seams on TV was an undeniable part of the show’s appeal.

Like it or not, the town halls have transformed the health care debate into an audience-driven reality show, and last week the anti-reform contestants were the winners. Sort of. They made the most noise, they won the most camera time, but they also gave viewers the familar thrill of watching people lose control in ways that earned them 15 minutes of fame, but not admiration.

Even as I watch the shouting people on TV over and over again, I found the politics driving the town hall disruptions to be despicable. That a small group of Americans would seek out these hitherto sleepy village meetings for the sole purpose of preventing any real information from being exchanged is outrageous. That this small group would disrupt the town halls by shouting out-of-date and bizarre accusations (e.g., “Communist!” “Enemy list!” “Death panels!”) made the whole charade more like an outtake from Invasion of the Body Snatchers than a scene from a deliberative democracy. Even worse: The fact that some of these fulminating firebrands have managed to work their neighbors into a paralyzing fear of their own government is a troubling snapshot of the daunting political chasm that divides this country, and a grim reminder of how politics often works. Even at its most respectful, political debate is not pretty.

The cable coverage of the town halls this week revealed something about America — both the viewers of cable news and attendees at the town halls — but it did not really get at the substance of the health insurance debate.

I thought about this tension between reality TV and the reform debate as I watched William Kostric yesterday on MSNBC’s Hardball discussing why he stood outside President Obama’s New Hampshire town hall with a loaded automatic pistol and a sign calling for Americans to “Water the Tree of Liberty” with the blood of patriots. Chris Matthews led a great interview, but it was, I fear, more reality TV than health insurance reform.

“You’re carrying a goddamn gun at a presidential event!” Chris Matthews shouted at Kostric. I, like many others, was glad Matthews shouted.  Legal or not (“open” carrying of a gun with a license is legal in New Hampshire), when a protester brings a loaded weapon to a political rally, most people would assume he was an armed militant. And yet, the whole exchange was unseemly. Even as Matthews spit apt questions at an appropriate level of outrage, the debate that got us there in the first place was nowhere to be found.

Perhaps I am just nostalgic for a kind of debate that never really existed — civic forums where substance reigns over style. Maybe reality TV is now just one more aspect of the media terrain a political campaign must conquer on the road to success.  If so, I hope the Democratic Party gets busy real soon with its own reality show called “So You Think You’ve Got Coverage?” and that it turns out to be much better than season two of the Republicans’ already popular “Water that Tree of Liberty.”

Jeffrey Feldman is the author of Framing the Debate (Ig Publishing, 2007), Outright Barbarous (Ig Publishing, 2008), and founder of Frameshop, the influential blog on politics and language. He holds a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology, which he applies to the analysis of speeches, media, and campaigns. An influential voice both on and in the media, Dr. Feldman is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post, has appeared on PBS, MSNBC, and Air America, and can be seen frequently on CBC Newsworld.

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