Monday, March 27, 2006

The Madison Ave. Presidency: Style over Substance

Here's a question for everyone who works for a living: what's the worst possible combination of traits you can encounter in a colleague—or worse still, a boss?

If you came up with "clueless and arrogant," then you already know why we call this Bush administration "the corporate presidency." Which brings us to the topic of Monday with McKenna. Terry, take it away...

We kid ourselves that we have the best of everything; the best universities, the best housing, the most productive agriculture, the best government. We attribute this to our freedom and unrestrained commerce. But for all of our effort to generate plenty, we have ended up with way too much of some things and too little of others. Thus we live in ever larger houses, entertain in ever more opulent great rooms and pass quiet evenings at home by watching huge flat screens TV’s. Our processed food and ever-present snacks are highly flavored and inexpensive – also highly caloric. We pay for our bounty with ever longer commutes to longer work weeks. And we have gotten fatter and fatter – and prone to the diseases of plenty: heart disease and diabetes. Our civil society is impoverished. Many of the better off are isolated from the rest by gated communities; we in the middle class live in suburban islands; both are far removed from the alienated urban poor.

But enough of that. Today I want to focus my dismay at news and policy – for my thesis is that our culture of plenty has impoverished the reporting of news. And with no news, there is no genuine debate on policy.

Thus, where 40 years ago, families felt they were well off with a portable black and white TV for the kids and maybe one color TV in the living room; and where after supper we were content to sit down to a brief half hour of national news (available from one of three networks) - we now have an endless supply of news – available 24/7 on our TV’s, via the Internet on our PC’s and even on our phones. But the plethora of news is really just empty calories – all sound bytes and photo opps.

Where we would benefit from analysis, instead we get matched sets of talking heads, set against each other in constant argument. Yet despite the argument, truth is buried. For example, the strange transition where estate taxes became death taxes was noticed only after the damage to our tax system was complete. And in the run up to Iraq the nightly news became a cheer leading section for American might – with little thought about the now obvious consequences. No, the news is very much like a buffet filled with potato chips and similar snacks. Filling, but none of it real food.

The consequence of news reduced to tidbits, is a public policy debate centered on mere slogans. I was struck by this when I looked at news coverage of George Bush defending (again) his Iraq failure. Instead of hearing his thoughts, we were treated to just enough to know what he was talking about… and he was shown standing in front of placards announcing his “PLAN FOR VICTORY.” I then went to the White House website, and lo and behold, for nearly every topic, a picture of the president with a placard. It’s as if his words are so lame that the message is all in the title. I’ve collected a few into a little photo montage (above right).

If you don’t know the truth, the pictures make it appears as if we have a presidency of real accomplishment - but when you consider the results it’s anything but.

Let’s take time out to examine the pictures. Have we done anything to reorder America’s priorities? And are they the right ones? Have we started to improve healthcare? Not really. The president’s focus is solely on tax breaks that allow entrepreneurs to purchase private insurance; for those on Medicaid – the Bush plan is to help states abandon the poor. And what about so called Medicare reform - it turns out that the program is a confusing mess for old folks – the only beneficiaries are the drug companies.

And how about that plan for victory? Do we believe that until now there was no plan? Maybe the correct placard should have been Plan for Victory II. And like most sequels, not as compelling as the first.

But night after night, we hear almost nothing.

—T. McKenna

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