Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Fourth Estate

Several months ago, on the recommendation of a friend, I dedicated something like seventy hours over several weeks to watching a television series in its entirety, the first two seasons on dvd and then, because I'd become a junkie who couldn't wait for inter-library loan, on streaming video. That show was The Shield, and other than the brutal and heartbreaking kicks in the gut that come when the sins of the father are invariably visited upon the sons, I had no regrets. It was fierce and funny and smart and, in surprising ways, human. When it was over, though, it felt like the end of one of those ten day, no holds barred affairs that come out of nowhere, where it's all risks and laughs and sweat and unexpected, usually poorly timed, outbursts, and nobody gets hurt because you're both too dazed to know the difference. Usually there's a scar, always there's a story or two (or twelve). You know the ones I'm talking about. When they're over, you hit pause, draw the shades, pull back and take stock. That's where I was after The Shield: I wasn't willing to leap into another torrid month with Dexter, Homeland, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad. I needed some time alone.

The Bear Lair is a humble abode. To paraphrase They Might Be Giants, it's austere, severe, it holds few furnishings dear. What we do offer, however, is a rather nice television, a damned fine couch, and some pretty comprehensive cable. We've also experienced a fair number of aw-fuck-it time here at Casa del Oso: the long-day-at-work-so-aw-fuck-it, the took-a-day-off-and-it's-fucking-raining-aw-fuck-it, the visit-with-my-daughter-was-cancelled-aw-fuck-it, the too-brief-visit-with-my-daughter-just-ended-aw-fuck-it, and so on aw-fuck-it. Aw-fuck-it is generally a prelude to visiting the couch, cracking a beer, and reaching for the remote.

There's a protocol of sorts to this. I usually start by punching up the channel I think I want to watch, and then I hit the guide and start scrolling. That's a ruse, of course. I'm trying to con myself into believing, even for just a few minutes, that I'm not going to press the On Demand button. I scroll and scroll, the remote almost literally winking at me. It's nice to be able to play these little games with inanimate objects. I almost said "non-sentient," but let's not kid ourselves: I'm sure by now my cable box and, by extension, the remote, perceive plenty about me. Wink. Wink. On Demand.

I don't remember exactly when it was, but I do know this: it was a rainy day when I first clicked on The Newsroom on HBO's on-demand series page. It rained, there was thunder and lightning, and I wasn't going anywhere. I also know I was supposed to be doing something else at that time: laundry, or digging through an as yet still not unpacked box for a piece of paper I needed for some reason, or editing a story I should've finished editing a year ago but goddamn does it make me want to punch kittens every time I look at it. So aw-fuck-it, I pressed some buttons and a few seconds later I was watching season one, episode one.

As tempting as it is, I'm not going to tell you everything you always wanted to know about The Newsroom. I'm not a reviewer, and this isn't a review. I'll say this: I like the show. In fact, I find it a little irresistible. I was a big fan of The West Wing back in the day, so it's fair to say I'm a Sorkin devotee. I used to plan my week around that show. I cared about the characters and I cared about what happened on the show, which means everyone did their jobs. In particular, I'd say the writer did his job: I don't suffer bad writing, not for anything. Aaron Sorkin is a good goddamned writer, period. A bit sentimental, sure. In the tradition of It's a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, this is unabashed Capra-corn: high ideals being fought for in the face of boundless cynicism. He's also a shameless emotional manipulator. Sorkin's like a male, thinking person's Jodi Picoult, using your investment in the character to stretch the tension to the point where, when that character's moment of clarity pops, you're complicit. (I give the actors and directors credit for that, too, because only war and keeping secrets require a greater collaborative effort than ensemble performance art.) It's easy to take potshots because, as The Newsroom's protagonist points out, "Snark is the idiot's version of wit." My best angels remind me that ideals aren't just worth fighting for, they must be fought for, or they'll get trampled by the herd, which asks for little more than to just get from here to there. We've walked on the moon and roved the surface of Mars. We've cured diseases and, for better or worse, split the atom. I'd call that promising. I'd say our ideals, tarnished though they are, mean something.

There are truths in this show too. There is the truth that networks -- cable networks included -- are owned by people who intend to make money and are thus beholden to the advertisers whose dollars fill the shareholders' coffers. Likewise are they beholden to politicians, because politicians, once elected, are responsible for enacting (or blocking) the rules by which those organizations make their money (or don't). There is the truth that the people responsible for reporting the news are human and therefore subject to the caprices of human life: distractions and enticements and blindspots and biases and desires and disappointments. At bottom, though, is the message that it is still better to try to do it right and fail than to know you've done it wrong for the sake of being popular and therefore profitable. It's better to report on the insidious nature of a political movement like the Tea Party than to offer up nightly voyeurism like the Casey Anthony trial. Why? Because the former is a collection of lies with lasting impact, while the latter is a spectacle of conjecture and manufactured outrage. One's an easy sell, and the other most people don't want to hear (sadly, not respectively).

But I'm really not here to talk about a television show. I'm here because my state's governor, Paul Lepage, recently made a joke. A few days ago while sitting in a fighter jet simulator at Pratt & Whitney, our governor quipped that he wanted to blow up the Portland Press Herald (our state's largest newspaper). A little later he reportedly added the Bangor Daily News (our second-largest and, for my money, the only good paper in the state) to his list of targets. Obviously the man was joking, regardless of the tastelessness of the joke (a bit of a trademark of his): he was in a flight simulator, for christ's sake, he couldn't even blow himself up (sadly). But the sentiment is genuine: Paul Lepage doesn't like news outlets that speak in less than glowing terms about him, and he makes no secret of that. Last year he told a gathering of school children that newspapers are something to be feared. When I say school children, I mean kindergarten to sixth grade. This is a state governor telling children as young as five that newspapers are bad. I wish I were making this up.

During the same Q&A, Lepage told the students that, by the time his administration concludes, "education in Maine is going to be great." His solution to making education in Maine great? He wants to utilize a voucher system to leverage private education against public education, thus creating a competitive environment that will -- in the spirit of pure capitalism -- elevate the standards and practices of public education. I'm not a socialist. I think capitalism fundamentally makes more sense: it is, ironically, more human, in that it is more in keeping with human nature. I think in its purest form competition is better for the consumer, as long as everyone's playing by the same rules (I'm talking to you, Walmart). But education isn't a consumable. And beyond that, you can't simply disregard the vast per-capita disparity in funding capacity between public and private education. If you could, I wouldn't feel like this is actually just a sinister way of hamstringing a substantial union that doesn't typically vote Republican. Here's something else: many years ago when I first heard the details of the bastard lovechild of the George W. Bush administration, "No Child Left Behind," my first thought was, "This sounds like a tremendously effective way to build a lasting constituency." Any educational system that cares more about teaching to the test than it does about compelling students to apply reason to problem-solving is not about education, it's about programming. There's a reason why evangelism is so popular: thinking about stuff is hard; having a book of answers, regardless of how implausible most of those answers might be, is easy. Super fucking easy. Similarly, having a test that says you know the stuff you're supposed to know, and making sure your educational system does nothing so much as it drums the supposed-to-know into your head: also super fucking easy. And it's a double-bonus, because when those children who weren't left behind reach voting age, many of them won't be smart enough to see you're selling them a bill of goods. I grew up dirt poor, so I feel safe saying that if you're poor or working-class and you've voted for clowns like Paul Lepage or George W. Bush, you're fucking stupid. At best, you're horribly misguided.

Paul Lepage started out on the shitty streets of Lewiston, Maine, fending for himself from an early age, and somehow he grew up to be a mayor and then a governor. It's no surprise he's among the ignorant masses who have, their entire lives, hated the smartest kid in the class. Goddamn must it chap Lepage's ass to see some pedigreed journalist write an article using his own words to demonstrate what a dumbass he is. His off-the-cuff remarks are rife with threats and empty rhetoric and (as demonstrated in the fighter jet simulator) tasteless jokes -- how dare a reporter use those against him. Not to mention his personal attacks on other lawmakers, like Troy Jackson, whom Lepage accused of giving it to the people without vaseline, and who Lepage suggested should go back into the woods to cut trees and send someone with a brain to Augusta to do some good work. Being accused by Paul Lepage of not having a brain can only be a shade better than being accused of the same offense by, say, a spoon.

I have the dubious honor of living in the small city where Paul Lepage served nearly two terms as our titular mayor. I say titular because, the way the city charter is written, the mayor doesn't have any real power, other than to break the occasional tie in a city council vote. Well, that is unless he happens to be a bully and a monumental prick, in which case he has, essentially, all the power you give him. The one time I ever encountered Paul Lepage, it was a little over a month after the gubernatorial election when he wandered into one of our local drinking establishments and seated himself at the bar not far from where I sat with my friends. I was in a bad way at the time, not long removed from several weeks of taking a baseball bat to most of the interior walls of my house, and even less removed from a stay in the looney bin that was only technically related to the wall battering. Needless to say, I was in no mood to suffer fools, myself included, which is another way of saying I had absolutely nothing left to lose, so I was a bit mouthy. My friend Ron met my Lepage rant with the challenge that it was easy to sit there and grumble, and suggested I go up and tell him what I thought of him. I shrugged, rose from my chair, clapped the governor-elect on the back and said, "Good luck being governor." He turned and offered me a broad smile that vanished the instant I finished with this: ". . . because you were a shitty mayor."

He probably thought I was a reporter. He probably still thinks that. Sadly, I was just a drunk asshole in a bar. Sadder still, he's just a dumb asshole in the governor's office. Based on his record, I'd say that's worse. But if he wins another term, I won't be taking it out on him. There was a joke going around after John Kerry lost the presidential election to a floundering George W. Bush, and it was cruel but apt: Kerry was like a non-retarded person who failed to win a medal at the Special Olympics. Democrats, get your house in order and stop playing to your imaginary strengths. You're not that special, and working people have plenty of reasons to think you suck. If you can't put a candidate out there who can beat the third-party independent, let alone the incumbent, have the strength of character to step aside. And journalists: stop being pussies. Lead every day, for as many days as it takes, with the ineptitude of the Lepage administration. He's writing your script, all you have to do is print it, every day, without fail. Short of that, you'll all get what you deserve, and you'll have no standing to bitch about it.