Bob Franken

Dylan and the Upside Down of Politics

Like many reporters I can read upside down. It’s a skill that’s useful when you want to sneak a peek at stuff an unwary official or politician leaves naked on his desk or nude notes on his lap.

Back in my TV puberty in Cleveland, a presidential candidate came to town and was sitting down with the usual rotation of local yokel anchor types, like me, who could be expected to ask puffball questions and get canned non-answers.

The aforementioned candidate’s staff (his identity doesn’t matter) had prepared his crib sheet and he carelessly left it sitting there for me to, uh, crib.. I could see he was going to wow me (the sheet included my name) and the audience with specific figures about the area’s unemployment rate, and industries,so no matter what my inquiry he’d work them into his answer.

I hated that. So I began by saying “Senator _______, the unemployment rate here is (whatever his sheet said it was) and the (ditto) industry here has been particularly hard hit—.” Then I continued with my question. The poor guy had nothing to say. The response was so generic, he didn’t even bother to use my name.

Now in today’s sophisticated world of message manipulation, the politicians’ media adviser brains have made damned sure their clients hide anything they don’t want the upside-down-reading-scumbag-
reporter to see. (Is “scumbag-reporter” a redundancy?).

In fact the cleverest of the clever in this battle of deceit will sometimes place papers on their client’s desk they DO want us to see—misleading us into believing we’re pulling a fast one when we’re not the puller but the pullEE.

A variation on that would be the talking point. Those are exactly what they sound like: Words created by party leaders and their handlers that are to be mindlessly repeated to make sure that A) their puppets stay on message and B) they look like they know what they’re talking about.

Which brings me to Dylan Ratigan, the puppet disrupter of MSNBC, and his quote “Racists and talking points piss me off”.

( Full disclosure: I never met the guy, never been on his show, although I do show up on MS. Full enough?).

Ratigan was explaining the browbeating he gave Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz

(Wasserman-Schultz and I have met but when we did she was looking over my shoulder as she said “Nice to see you”).

Whether Ratigan mistreated Wasserman-Schultz or not, his view of talking points is dead on. Just like those of that long ago presidential candidate (he lost by the way), they need to be penetrated and disrupted.

They are a mirage, creating an impression there’s a “there-there”, when it’s just an illusion. They are another version of the consultant’s maxim “Answer the question you want to answer, not the one you were asked”. It’s clever but frankly dishonest, it obscures truth and stifles valid debate.

Frankly, those of us in TV have helped create this monster. Another axiom is that “Viewers don’t remember the debate or discussion, it’s the sound bite they recall”. So if the well programmed advocate sticks to one bite and repeats it till the clock runs out, he or she can escape unscathed and wait till the next show calls.

The problem with all this is that instead of ideas, we get self-serving, vacuous phrase-mongering. Is it any wonder there is no longer such a thing as bipartisan cooperation or even engagement?. In order for that to
happen the various sides need to talk to one another.

What we get instead is people talking to themselves and their amen choruses. It helps explain why we never get anything down. There is no back and forth, no openness.

That contributes to the feeling that the bottom is falling out of our system. It’s inevitable when the whole concept of exchanging ideas is so turned upside down. And Dylan, not that you need them but please feel free to use these thoughts as talking points.

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