by: Cynthia Fuchs / George Mason University
The first presidential debate garnered predictable media excitement. The tv run-up included a week’s worth of entrenchment, with usual suspects — anchors, analysts, seeming armies of spinners — setting up shop outside the University of Miami in Coral Gables.
There’s a big problem with young people not voting. –Drew Barrymore, The Best Place to Start (MTV 28 September 2004)
The revolution will be televised, mark my words. –P. Diddy, The Oprah Winfrey Show (ABC 28 September 2004)
Today it seems like practically everybody is calling herself an activist. –Yvonne Bynoe, Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership, and Hip Hop Culture
The first presidential debate garnered predictable media excitement. The tv run-up included a week’s worth of entrenchment, with usual suspects — anchors, analysts, seeming armies of spinners — setting up shop outside the University of Miami in Coral Gables. For days they anticipated what each candidate must do to appear “presidential” for those 62.5 million viewers who ended up watching, gazing solemnly into their teleprompters as they asserted the event’s “importance,” not only for Bush and Kerry, but also for voters.
Some reporters ventured off their established locations to interview people on campus, usually former Clinton Secretary of Health and Human Services and current University president Donna Shalala, but also the occasional professorial type. But if — as they demonstrated all week and all the night of 30 September, the mediators really only wanted to talk to one another — their background space was typically cluttered with placards and bodies — most all of them young. brandishing signs, pointing to their t-shirt logos, talking on cell phones, smiling and waving to friends out in tv-land, these kids were everywhere.
And they are members of the demographic that so-called experts say don’t know and don’t care about world events, domestic politics, or this year’s election.
Of course, much of this “youth” effect was site specific. If the debate were held in a location harder for students to enter or less fun for them to crash, it’s likely that the backgrounds for Hardball and Larry King would have been less busy, less antic, less peculiarly chaotic. And if the Today Show has taught tv talking heads anything, it’s that an enthusiastic background crowd makes any interview look more energetic and vital, perhaps even more compelling. In a word, more like reality tv, that supposed ratings magnet for, among other viewers, “kids.” At the same time, these kids — who come with their own backgrounds, interests, and dimensions — are increasingly turning to non-reality tv for their sense of how the world works. Drew Barrymore finds out as much during her trek across America to discover the whereabouts of the “youth vote” for her “Choose or Lose” documentary, The Best Place To Start. When she asks university students (“boys,” as she calls them) where they got their “information,” they tell her: The Daily Show, described repeatedly by Stewart as “fake news.” The next day, Barrymore has her own experience confirmed in seeming “real news” — while riding in her bus (understandably, she hates to fly, following 9/11), she opens a newspaper and then displays the headline to her cameraperson: “There’s an article in USA Today about how comedy with Bill Maher and Jon Stewart is making politics palatable to young males.” She sees this as “sort of ironic,” given that she was just talking about this very subject, but the point is less “ironic” in the way she means it than straight-ahead telling: in a universe where the real news lies and spins as a matter of course, what better source for some semblance of “truth” than speakers who tell you upfront they have ideas, construe askew, and read between lines?
No surprise, the post-debate breakdown that outdrew all others — especially in the coveted “adults 18-34” bracket (otherwise known, in Bill O’Reilly’s estimation, as “stoned slackers”) — was The Daily Show. Reportedly, some 2.4 million viewers saw Jon Stewart point out that Iraqis have in fact been trying to protect themselves, against U.S. troops (“I think that’s actually kind of been the problem”); that naming Poland as “your second country” in a list of coalition partners is hardly effective in building confidence in the U.S. “mission.”
When it comes to watching tv this political season, confidence is key. If watching O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, or even Tom Brokaw is an act of faith, seeking out alternatives is increasingly a combination of wit and perseverance: kids look hard for what they consider quality tv. And tv (quality or not) is looking for them. Consider the many and mighty efforts of the past months: the Bush and Kerry girls soliciting registration on the MTV Video Music Awards (one of many deployments that had Shaila K. Dewan worrying the “children” were becoming “weapons of mass affection” [New York Times, 5 September 2004]); Christina Aguilera’s own “Choose or Lose” special, Sex, Votes, and Higher Power (in which she spends 20-some minutes explaining the differences between the presidential candidates’ stands on abstinence, abortion, and funding for women’s shelters, tactfully leaving little doubt as to her own ideas on these issues); MTV’s proliferating “Choose or Lose” PSAs (by J. Lo, Alicia Keys, Jadakiss, Hilary Duff, and Kanye West); or the multiple, much-publicized campaigns by P. Diddy (who’s pumping his “Vote or Die” campaign every Friday on 106 and Park), Russell Simmons’ “Hip Hop Action Summit,” and the currently touring “Vote for Change” crew, including Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M., Jackson Browne, Babyface, the Dixie Chicks, Keb Mo, and James Taylor, among other not-so-youthful rockers. The get-kids-to-vote movement has even caught the attention of tv forums usually directed at so-called adults: everyone from Deborah Norville to Oprah Winfrey to Larry King wants to know how the youth vote has turned so crucial. And, no small thing, their producers want a piece of this lucrative bandwagon.
All this sudden love for kids might be considered disingenuous, even exploitative, if not for the well-performed sincerity of the most prominent pitch-people. This isn’t to say that such “celebrities” might actually secure the “youth vote” in a sustained, coherent, or even sensible way. Alan Wirzbicki of the New Republic is particularly skeptical of Barrymore’s effort: “She talks about voting like a civic virtue that one should practice along with all the other virtues — and to fight the man, or whatever” (“Celebrities and the Youth Vote: Star Power,” 23 September 2004). It’s true, that at 29, Barrymore retains a naïveté that seems as cloying as it is adorable. Here, in her honesty, she seems most unreal. But that might just be what makes her most persuasive on tv.
Barrymore realizes during her documentary that young voters are caught up in a cycle (“That chicken and egg thing,” explains Hillary Rodham Clinton), left out of politicians’ appeals because they don’t vote, and not voting because politicians don’t attend to their concerns. This cycle, apparently by definition, both stems from and reproduces what Farai Chideya calls a lack of trust in political, economic, and legal systems. This disconnect has to do with ideology as much as generation, class, race, and gender: in her new book, Trust: Reaching 100 Million Missing Voters, Chideya writes, “Today’s political landscape is the result of a forty-year movement by social and fiscal conservatives to claim political power and reshape intellectual debate” (35).
While it’s called “conservative,” such reshaping largely rejects democratic ideals articulated during previous eras, and explicitly rebuffs viewpoints that might be termed “diverse.” It’s the logical next step in the cycle, to judge non-believers summarily, to skip even pretending to care about kids’ concerns. This attitude is hardly confined to self-proclaimed “conservatives.” At a later point in her excursion, Barrymore comes across another newspaper, featuring a photo of herself speaking with Wesley Clarke in New Hampshire (a conversation that, she noted in her “confessional cam,” made her feel slighted, indeed, treated like a “10-year-old”). Captioned “Get Off the Bus, Angel,” the image underlines that this girl is going to have trouble being taken seriously.
This even as she makes her most sincere and frankly public effort to get “educated.” Barrymore reveals her own insecurities (in one scene, she’s in tears while talking to producing partner Nancy Juvonen on the phone, fretting, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” That’s okay, soothes Juvonen. She can incorporate that very ignorance into the project. And so, Drew is inspired once more, and sets forth to “stop feeling like politics was so daunting and start making it more personal.” To this end, she visits with celebrities whom she feels influence those “boys” she met in New Hampshire, that is, other boys. Following brief and mostly conventional observations by Stewart, Chris Rock, Michael Moore, and James Carville (who fusses that at malls, he sees “kids hanging out, with this vacant look”), she finds Bill Maher himself, who tells her, “Young kids, I notice a lot, will say, ‘I don’t follow politics because politics is dirty,’ as if that somehow makes them cleaner. That doesn’t make you cleaner. That’s just an excuse to not do your homework.”
Moved to do some homework, Barrymore heads to Selma on a “Civil Rights quest,” because, she says, it marks voting rights history, namely, the Edmund Pettis Bridge, where police stopped marchers by force in March 1965, and the National Voting Rights Museum. Here she talks with black people, and participates in a black kids’ classroom exercise, where she discovers (apparently to her surprise) that most everything you do is affected by voting, from the food you eat to the air you breathe.
When she leaves, Drew spends a few minutes hugging the kids good-bye as the handheld camera watches from a low angle, underlining the earnestness of the moment, despite its wholly overt banality. While it hardly inclines you to trust in the possibility that political imbalances will work out, or that race and class relations might be changed, for a second, you think this authentic white girl believes it. From here, Barrymore walks across that historic bridge, to look back on what she’s learned. “I come from a privileged world,” she observes, “but I’ve always been enlightened by struggle. No matter where we come from, all over the world, whatever location, from whatever history, we all have the power to make a difference. And in the voting booth is one of the most tremendous places where this is evident. I have also come to believe that we all passionately want to feel a part of something, so that we are not alone. And although voting is a very personal ritual, it brings us all together in the most profound way.”
Following this moment, so fragile, so faux-haunting, the scene cuts to Drew sending in her vote by mail, in a tender, home-video-ish sequence. It’s way too MTV, way too connived. But it’s also familiar, careful, and self-knowing, a kind of Real World flash for those who know all the tricks, the viewers who were far ahead on the reality tv curve that now bedevils adult primetime. Even if you still don’t understand why voting is “important,” an obligation as much as a right, you may also be moved to do your homework.
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