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JFK, Jr., The Media, and Us; Liar, Liar, Liar; Read Up, Tune in; Dispatch From Middle America; PBSless


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Jonah Goldberg

JFK, JR., THE MEDIA, AND US
The coverage of the Kennedy tragedy is still an outrage. All three major networks are covering the funeral live. Tim Russert just compared John Jr. to Saint Thomas More. Is there a private citizen — of any level of accomplishment — alive today who might receive a thousandth of this coverage?

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This is not a matter of partisanship; of course, Kennedys will get more coverage than “normal” people. But if Ronald Reagan were to die tomorrow, heaven forbid, he would not get a tenth of this kind of coverage. If a Reagan child were to die, again heaven forbid, it might merit page A23 in the New York Times. The press has exhausted its supply of adjectives. No one more righteous or good or giving or talented can ever die because they will always fall short.

This is an American scandal in which the Kennedy family itself is almost entirely blameless. This is a confabulation of a press run amok. Normally the typical reporter will not speak for the American people without invoking some poll. But in this spectacle reporters will cavalierly speak of the “need of the American people” for closure; the “grieving of a nation,” the “sorrow across the land.”

How do these people know what is in the hearts of the American people? If Scrabble tournaments were covered on every network, Americans would be caught up in Scrabble. One doesn’t want to belittle or trivialize the death of a young man liked by so many. This is of course a tragedy. But this hagiography is so awful, so totally derived from the hubris and fake sentimentality of elite liberals, it mocks John Kennedy Jr. more than any critic could.

LIAR, LIAR, LIAR
Well, it turns out that Bill Clinton couldn’t resist making the death of a Kennedy really about himself. The president explained this week that it was he who first invited the son of his predecessor back to the Oval Office for the first time. It was, as most things sounding sincere that come out of the president’s mouth, a lie.

As Chris Matthews has revealed, Bill Clinton was the third president to bring John Jr. back to the White House. The first was Richard Nixon, who did so secretly, without exploitation of any kind. The second was Ronald Reagan — the next Republican to hold the office. And finally Bill Clinton.

READ UP, TUNE IN
As many readers know, the G-File was largely AWOL this week. My apologies. I was out doing real work. Some of that work is in today’s Wall Street Journal (which I will be discussing on Crossfire this evening).

And, below is the “lost G-File of Iowa” — in its original form — that was almost lost in a near-Biblical computer disaster.

DISPATCH FROM MIDDLE AMERICA
My apologies to G-File readers who took the “daily” part of this column at face value. I am currently in a place called “Iowa.” I am in a car driving back to Des Moines. I have been following the Gary Bauer presidential campaign as it swings across Iowa on an 1,100 mile trek to “advance America’s values.” I’m writing a profile of Mr. Bauer.

Unfortunately, because of my extremely elaborate contract with National Review magazine, I cannot write, speak, photocopy, or inhale any of the material intended for use in the antediluvian version of this fine journal. So I guess you’ll just have to subscribe.

In the meantime, I can write about other aspects of my trip. Let’s see. No doubt many readers are dying to know what it would be like to sleep between the toes of a giant sweaty man with an undiagnosed foot disease. I can report that you no longer have to buy those sub-par kits from the Home Shopping Network. Instead, just fly to Moline, Illinois, during a simultaneous heat wave and flood epidemic and stay at the Hampton Inn by the airport. The carpet in my room felt like someone had put down a tarp in a Calcutta public shower in 1957 and left it there. I think I found Ohio Rep. Jim Traficant’s hair in my toilet. And that smell! Well, as the song says, oo oo that smell.

I know it is a clichéthat we New Yorkers like to complain that you can’t get a good bagel in middle-American cities like, I dunno, Philadelphia or Trenton. But at the Hampton Inn, their “bagels” should come with rainbow sprinkles.

My experiences across the river from Illinois are still somewhat privileged, as I explained above. The censors at National Review are hopped up on a milkshake of Percodan, Crank, and smart drinks, just hoping to rip some bon mot from the Bauer Power tour. Still, I don’t think I would be giving up the ghost if I told readers that there are a great number of farms here. There’s more corn here than they know what to do with. And if I offered any suggestions, I would have to bone up on things like the Freedom to Farm Act — a piece of legislation that average people here can talk about with even more fluency that I can talk about such topics as “How many spin-offs did Happy Days have?” or “Asian-American actors without speaking roles in M*A*S*H.” See Ode To The Asian-American Type-Cast Actor).

I also don’t think the suits will call in the barracudas to renegotiate if I mention that there is a real beauty to this state and if they grow people bigger or nicer someplace else I haven’t been there.

Cue canned studio “Awwwww.”

PBSLess
Because these interruptions, commonly referred to as “work,” have gotten in the way, it’s time to address the response to a column from last week. Besides, I am without newspapers or TV (ah, sweet, sweet TV, how I miss thy non-judgmental glow), so I’ve got little else to talk about. Unless you want to hear more about the corn. I thought so.

So: We were fairly well flooded by e-mail on all sides of the PBS issue. The criticisms came in several forms, but almost everybody was saying the same thing. People like what’s on public television and don’t want it to go away. Further, they believe television couldn’t replicate the high quality of PBS fare.

The most commonly cited example of “quality” is the fact that PBS goes without commercials. Of course, technically this isn’t true. What is obviously meant by this is that PBS doesn’t interrupt Masterpiece Theatre ten times an hour with ads for adult diapers or Fat Be Gone (I keep meaning to write down that number). While this is certainly nowhere close to an argument based in principle, it is a very closely held opinion out there.

Okay, well, first, there is no reason to think that a private network couldn’t take up the PBS model for its sponsorship. Except for a two-second tag line thanking America’s cable companies, C-SPAN has no commercials whatsoever, after all.

But even commercial television can be far more flexible than most people think. During the Golden Age of television (I’m using the commonly held definition rather than my own, which begins with the day it was invented until the Entropy Principle causes the universe to cave in on itself), TV often went without ads as we know them today. Shows like Texaco Star Theater and Omnibus had one sponsor who appeared tastefully at the beginning and end of the program.

Even these days, this business model pops up from time to time. Schindler’s List is usually sponsored on network television without commercials (except for a tasteful plug during the intermission). The sitcom Mad About You featured a daring program without commercial interruptions that took place in real time, like the landmark Twilight Zone’s adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” four decades earlier. And let us not forget the 800-pound gorillas of pay cable. HBO (in all it’s forms), Showtime, AMC, Encore, and Cinemax, et. al., have no commercials at all and I am sure they cost less than what many PBS lovers pledge every year.

In short, there is no theoretical reason why commercial television could not be more “commercial free” along the lines of PBS. But some of you should know that many of the “wonderful” British shows you love were actually made with commercial breaks and PBS removed them for its American market. It’s not really pertinent but I got tired of people telling me how superior British snooty TV is because of its lack of commercials. It’s superior because it’s better made, damn it! Anyway, the real problem my critics have is that the content is so much better on PBS and they don’t think crass commercialism could replicate it. Poppycock! (A word not nearly as much fun to write as to say. Try it.)

This argument is akin to saying that we shouldn’t close the government cafeteria because we don’t know if the private sector can make macaroni and cheese the way we like it. Don’t fear the future. Yes, PBS fare is often better than its cable rivals, but that is in part because PBS skews the market. I will bet anyone out there a hundred bucks that if PBS ever goes under, Sesame Street will just move to a different corner.

As for the higher-brow stuff, there is a certain amount of ignorance at work here. Many of the programs people cited in their angry e-mails would have been made if PBS never existed at all. Symphonies play and people film them. The foreign films, comedies, and musical events make money. PBS is an ancillary market for many of the products we like most — from cooking shows to concerts. As for The American Experience and other excellent series, well, those programs are funded by corporations and foundations. Is it so inconceivable that these corporations would stop just because the target eyeballs were tuned to a different channel?

I could go on, but I am in Des Moines and I think everyone gets my point. Instead, I have a compromise: Keep public television “public” — with an eye on privatization later — but get it totally out of the business of political reporting. The federal government pays for 15% of public television — it’s really a lot more when you count the special treatment it gets. Still it is that federal funding which causes the headaches. It gets government in the business of state-sponsored news and values. Simply, that is bad, and these days so totally unnecessary it’s almost criminal.

If providing that 15% is so important, then there have to be consequences. No politics. Yes, this would mean that the NewsHour and some other shows I like very much would have to go dark or go to another network. Sorry, it’s a good show, but what price freedom and all that jazz. Of course, it would have the effect of causing some very serious and dour liberals to find jobs in the private sector. Tee hee!

As a conservative rather than a libertarian, I don’t see any reason why the government couldn’t sponsor an Arts and Culture network as part of its interest in promoting the general welfare. Just keep it out of politics and I’ll leave Big Bird alone.



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