Pandering to the camera

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More than a generation ago, inventive people with an entrepreneurial spirit, guts and creativity developed a new kind of medium called listener-sponsored radio. It was supported initially by donations from listeners, who liked the eclectic programming. It was a labor of love and nobody got paid much.

Eventually someone figured out that this was a public service and government could help fund it. Over time, it was transformed to the highly professional operation of today, with — surprise — executive salaries.
And it recently became the perfect vehicle for members of Congress to pander to their respective conservative or liberal constituencies by wasting unconscionable amounts of time debating whether to continue funding public radio instead of dealing with the real issues of the fiscal cliff they are driving us over. Watching a few minutes of this disgraceful debate on C-Span recently, I wanted to throw a pie at my own television set.
I have my own thoughts about how this issue should be decided, but even thinking about it is a trap — because it distracts my attention. This issue will have served as yet another excuse for postponing discussion of the real issues that will determine the future of this nation: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, waste in the defense budget, the nation’s role as policeman of the world, and so forth.
We have to wonder why our elected representatives do this. I don’t like the answer.
They are performing for the cameras, and the cameras are always on. Everything that happens on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives is broadcast on C-Span, and the footage is available to be repeated on the evening news.
I’m all for openness in government, but this “gavel to gavel” television coverage has had an extremely serious unintended consequence. It is a direct contributing cause of the near-demise of genuine deliberation in favor of endless campaigning. Instead of truly debating issues, too often members of Congress are actors reading scripts, intentionally inflammatory — leading to gridlock, which leads to nowhere.
As I write this, Rep. Paul Ryan is about to release his long-term plan for reducing the federal deficit. Whether I agree with the plan or not, I can count on the fact that both sides will play kickball with it. They will use it to make speeches, raise money, inflame their constituents, and get re-elected.
Two years ago, a tech-savvy state representative named Janice Arnold-Jones turned on a webcam in the middle of a New Mexico legislative committee hearing. Arnold-Jones is a passionate advocate of open government, and I have no doubt that she had the best intentions, but the problem of unintended consequences is real. The camera changes behavior.
Eventually we will probably have live broadcasts of much of our Legislature. I could hope that it would be so dull that hardly anybody will watch, but some legislators will find ways to take advantage of the new opportunity. The saving grace of the Legislature is the constitutional limit on the number of days in the session, coupled with the fact that legislators receive only per diem and have to get back home to their real jobs. So they have to get the basic work done.
It is sometimes said that Abraham Lincoln could not have been elected president in the age of television. If television had been pervasive in the New Mexico Roundhouse, Bruce King could not have been elected governor. New Mexico is not bursting at the seams with great statesmen — and we can’t afford to limit our leadership to those with good looks and slick speech.

© New Mexico News Services 2011