The congressional election is now mercifully over and the daily barrage of negative ads a dimming memory. But it should be remembered that in a rational political system there would have been much to discuss this year. In the summer and autumn the Asian economic crisis almost became a world crisis. The causes and remedies of Asia’s shocking drop in living standards, its continuing effects in countries such as Indonesia, and the threat it still poses to the rest of the world are critically important political topics. In its October adjournment frenzy Congress appropriated $18 billion to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to help avert future economic collapses in countries deemed to be in difficulty. But virtually no candidate of either major party so much as mentioned the furious controversy over how best to deal with these rolling crises of world capitalism. On September 25, the New York Times reported that 43.4 million Americans still lack health insurance after six years of prosperity—and the number is increasing. Democratic candidates occasionally talked about a “patient’s bill of rights” but ignored those without sufficient money to attain the status of “patients.” Senate Republicans smothered the campaign-spending reform bill, which had passed the House as the consequence of a stunning and unexpected bipartisan rebellion against our system of legalized bribery in the form of campaign contributions. However, other than taking account of the drama of Senator Russ Feingold’s re-election battle, made difficult by his refusal of PAC money, candidates and the press ignored the issue. There is now a spreading agricultural depression, alleviated by a bipartisan congressional retreat from strict free-market principles. Very interesting,except that it might have been happening on Mars for all the attention it got. Abroad, 1998 witnessed the Yugoslav army engaged in mass murder in the province of Kosovo, and the probable development of atomic and chemical weapons by North Korea and Iraq. These were issues weighty enough to warrant mention in a national political campaign. And politicians did give them occasional perfunctory notice. But the national media were governed on most days by “all Monica all the time” considerations. Thus none of those matters was given the attention it would have received if the media treated politics as if it were about things that mattered.
The main reason why politicians could and did ignore genocide in Kosovo this year, or Rwanda in 1994, or the grim continuing realities of race and class in this country, is that our media are happiest when they can cover politics like a sports event. The quadrennial presidential “horse race” is the classic instance of this tendency. The network analysts and other talking heads love arguing about winners and losers, media “buys,” strategic successes and failures. Questions of principle, such as those involved in the debate over abortion rights, ar...
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