The Little Mud Village on the Potomac
    by Gene Lyons

We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas;
but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate."
                  --Henry David Thoreau, "Walden"

      It's not necessary to be a disciple of Thoreau, that great 19th century American crackpot,
 to wonder if the mass media aren't dragging civilization backward. And no, I'm not talking about
 Paris Hilton, although the sudden fame of this vapid heiress whose only talent appears to be
 shamelessness is definitely symptomatic.

      I'm talking about the great paradox of contemporary political life: the more sophisticated the
technology, the more primitive the message. At the rate American public discourse is decaying,
we're going to end up in holes in the ground like Saddam Hussein, instant-messaging grunts to
each other over wireless internet connections.

      Actually, it's already happening. Visit almost any politically-oriented website, left or right,
where it's customary to find total strangers exchanging everything from sexual taunts to death
threats under the cloak of anonymity. Here's in its entirety is an e-mail I got yesterday from
somebody I've never met named Theodore: "Now that Saddam has gotten out from under
his rock why don't you go get in and take his place you [expletive deleted] homosexual.

      Exactly why people like Theodore get a charge out of imagining--incorrectly, as it happens
--the intimate lives of strangers, I can't say. But I digress. See, it's not anonymous callers and
e-mailers who are driving American political discourse back toward the stone age.

      Apart from pornography, I pointed out recently, nothing travels through cyberspace faster
than quackery and superstition. So it was probably inevitable that the internet and satellite TV
would provide an outlet for themes previously limited to supermarket tabloids: not merely
celebrity sex scandals, but faith-healers, psychics, spirit mediums who conjure up the dead,
flying saucer enthusiasts, religious cultists and conspiracy theorists.

      But it's the behavior of those at the very apex of the media pyramid that's largely
responsible for the decay of public discourse. Seemingly distracted by their own fame,
Washington celebrity pundits increasingly substitute rumor, speculation, augury,
soothsaying and mind-reading for news and cogent analysis of public issues.

      Consider the performance turned in by ABC's Ted Koppel as emcee of last week's
New Hampshire Democratic presidential debate. Once a widely respected journalist,
Koppel devoted, by actual count, his first nineteen questions to polls, personalities and money:

      "General is rumored, however, that you are a favored candidate by the Clinton
family. If Mrs. Clinton, Senator Clinton, or former President Clinton were to offer you his
endorsement, would you take it?"

      "Senator Lieberman, you've got a bit of a shot to the solar plexus today...
Have your chances received a bad shock today?"

      So relentlessly did he hew to triviality, noted Dan Kennedy in the Boston Phoenix,
that "Koppel actually pulled off the heretofore unimaginable feat of giving Dennis Kucinich
a moment in the spotlight.

      "'I want the American people to see where the media takes politics in this country,'
Kucinich said...'To start with endorsements--we start talking about endorsements, now
we're talking about polls, and then we're talking about money. Well, you know, when you
do that, you don't have to talk about what's important to the American people.'

      "The crowd went wild."

      Al Sharpton got a cheer when he too rebuked Koppel's relentless triviality.

      And why did Gore endorse Howard Dean? Time columnist Joe Klein's answer was
typical: "The two have so much in common. They're the angriest guys in the Democratic
Party... Dean and Gore are angry in different ways, though. Gore's anger is personal.
He is angry at Bill Clinton (yes, for Monica Lewinsky but also for being such an
impossible act to follow). He has been angry at Hillary Clinton since 1993, when
the elected Vice President found himself competing with the unelected Vice President
for Bill Clinton's attention. He is angry with Joe Lieberman..."

      Enough. Klein, of course, became rich and famous by lying about his authorship of
"Primary Colors," a novel marketed as insider gossip. If he had sources for any of this
stuff, he neglected to say so. Irrational Democratic anger is a favorite GOP theme.
Endorsing Dean, Gore argued that that the U.S. had never in its 200 year history
"made a worse foreign policy mistake" than invading Iraq. But you know what a
phony he is.

      Last week, the pundit chorus told us Dean's nomination was inevitable, although
no votes had been cast. Then came Saddam's capture, by my count the fourth
epoch-making event in Iraq in 2003, after the fall of Baghdad, Bush's "Mission
Accomplished" carrier landing, and his artificial turkey Thanksgiving photo op.
Dean's candidacy was pronounced DOA and Bush's re-election assured.

      And so it went, another week of rumor-mongering, mind-reading, and
soothsaying in the little mud village on the Potomac.

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