Abraham Lincoln was quoted as saying, “character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow: the shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” Now, even in Lincoln’s day the art of politics demanded a steely mental toughness and shrewd negotiating skills. Lincoln was among, if not the, very best of his day on the national stage in being political. Daniel Day Lewis gives yet another phenomenal screen performance in the new movie, Lincoln, in which those skills are brilliantly portrayed. Go see it.
I do believe, however, our late president would blush with despondency and embarrassment were he to visit Washington today and be witness to the amount of time, energy and resources that are being committed to casting shadows that disappear with each day’s setting sun rather than planting and nurturing trees that will grow and bear fruit for future generations, as his efforts most certainly did.
The art of negotiating has not only been lost, or rather abandoned, in Washington, it has been replaced by the art – if you can call it an art – of manipulating perceptions. Perceptions (the shadows) are the handiwork of modern media. And the manifestation of that handiwork now posses the gravest threat yet to our nation’s economy because it is becoming more of a serious threat than I thought possible in being a very real obstacle to finding compromise on how to avoid the Fiscal Cliff.
Real ideas – ones that somebody actually believes in – cannot be brought forth, challenged, discussed and hotly debated when those individuals supposed to be doing the debating are running around chasing shadows like Peter Pan (there is much more you can do with that analogy without a whole lot of imagination). Over the past few weeks we have watched this play out in the ridiculously lame posturing of elected leaders supposed to be engaged in serious discourse over how to solve this nation’s debt crisis.
Instead, they spend their time and efforts not bringing forth and positioning new ideas – but seeking to deceitfully position the public perception of those with opposing viewpoints (i.e., as in the party opposite). To hell with ideas. Who has time for ideas with a 24-hour news cycle and an audience that has a few thousand competing electronic choices for their attention and demanding to be entertained? So we – the audience – have culpability in the charade that plays out every evening on Fox News and MSNBC.
Today we are living in a generation that, on the whole, has benefitted from such largesse that it demands to be entertained – because it has time to be entertained. We seek out and reward through our patronage Soap Opera Journalism. Controversy and conflict push ratings. That’s entertaining. Politicians and elected officials understand the game of visibility – and how costly an advantage that can be to buy. Want to build visibility in the media without spending more than you can afford? Then you have to be entertaining.
Perhaps the bitterest – if not most distasteful, in my opinion – manifestation of this phenomenon is Reality TV. Have you ever met anyone in real life who shares with you their most personal thoughts and insights about what is happening in their life while appearing to be talking to the invisible person next to you? That’s not reality. That’s just content being produced under the guise of reality for the purpose of entertainment. And, sadly, the same thing can be said about much of today’s news programming.
I wonder what an interview with President Lincoln would like on Fox News or MSNBC. I wonder if he could possibly fathom what the strategic purpose was of the rhetoric that pours forth every day from what would be considered his antecedent contemporaries in Washington. I have a feeling he would invoke another of his famous sayings: “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”
Well, good luck with that, Mr. President. The problem isn’t with finding and reporting facts. It’s with understanding what the term, “real” means today and how that is impacting the way those facts get presented.