Love her or hate her, we saw a side of Sarah Palin last night that must have caught observers at every end of the spectrum by surprise.
That would be her boring side.
And while some of us thought that America was going through tough times – what with towering unemployment, bank bailouts and a tidal wave of foreclosures – it turns out that nope, everything’s going just honkey dorey. Or at least it is in the version of “Real America” we were presented by Palin and Fox News last night.
Thursday marked the debut episode of Real American Stories, an hour-long concept so lukewarm and innocuous that the network is only committing to air it “periodically.” If the aim of the show was to remove Palin from a political context, and present her in a rosy light, then mission accomplished: Only a couple minutes into the premiere, she was flanked by a dozen or so preening grade school students from impoverished areas, all now on a path to a better future thanks to a generous philanthropist who’s committed to hep pay for their education. It was vintage hallmark.
The show is so soft and cuddly, in fact, that there’s almost no variation in the texture worth discussing. It is slick, smooth and wafer-thin. Give it five minutes and it’ll evaporate right in front of your eyes.
Playing the part of host, Palin was gracious, poised, present – and supremely uninteresting. The same could go for the rest of the show, which postures itself as a gaggle of feel-good American tales but then runs at a pace and rhythm so brisk that we are unable to dive into any single story. It’s less Real American Stories than A Collection of Real American Short Stories, and it’s because of this superficiality that my indifference turns to frustration.
I do not subscribe to the theory that all we get in the mainstream media is bad news. There are plenty of good headlines to go around – viral stories that are cute, soft features that warm the heart, even hard news headlines that are celebratory and reaffirming. The problem with so many TV news shows is not an absence of “happy” or “good” but a shocking lack of depth. Things are simplified and streamlined, into sound bites and polarized extremes. Everything is presented as red state vs. blue state when in fact most of us are gradations of purple.
So my only real analysis, in terms of Sarah Palin’s puff program last night, is that it’s less irrelevant than it is insidious. Real American Stories represents the latest news program to chip away at both the quality and depth of our public discourse. In the first story alone last night, where we heard of a generous white donor and the black kids he is helping to get to college, the show just breezes past the fact that only 25 percent of this given school’s students are college-bound. Just 1 in 4. That’s a horrific statistic. And yet the tempo of this show, which is determined to only tell the happy and harrowing side of the story, prevents us from looking at the real issues. Why are these students so disadvantaged, in the first place? Why are they reliant on a failing school system, and generous philanthropists?
Just as I would complain about Glenn Beck spewing panic, or Keith Olbermann issuing his proclamations about the Worst Person in the World, I don’t see Real American Stories adding much to the conversation. The worst thing happening to broadcast journalism today is the shrinking of the deep end. Almost everything now is shallow and quick-hit, and that goes for the more cheerful Real American Stories too. If this series doesn’t have the time, or inclination, to address failing urban schools while praising the donor that saved a few of the hopeless, then what good is it? Here’s an hour of primetime TV which tells all of us that in “Real America,” good people are doing good things. End of story. Period.
Well in my world, things are just a little more complicated than that. And any show that ignores that fact – whether advocating euphoria, fear or hatred – is doing us all a disservice. If they retitled this show Real American STORY, and took the time to flesh out the good, the bad and the ugly, then I’ll be back, ready to really learn something. You betcha.