Bullhorn: Goodbye to Summer, Hello to Pundit Echo Chamber

To help us launch It’s A Free Country, we reached out to politicians, academics, cultural thinkers, and activists to help us define our mission. The question we asked is simple: “What’s Broken in Politics, and How Do We Fix It?” This is David Cruz’s answer.

I tried to bid an official farewell to summer with a dip in the waters at my favorite spot off the Jersey Shore (the place, not the TV show), but swimming was restricted, such were the riptide conditions left over from the hurricane that just skidded past us a few days ago.

It’s just as well. A swim would’ve only fooled me into thinking that fall isn’t actually at my front door. Plus, in this economy, you can only have so much fun before you’re forced to pause and think about the guy down the street, who hasn’t been to the beach all summer because he has to work seven days a week, and how lucky he is to even have a job, unlike the lady around the corner, who just had to apply for public assistance because she just got laid off from her city job. It makes you almost long for winter, when we’re all equally bundled up against the chill and the truly cold stay inside, out of sight and out of mind.

My friends in politics love the fall, though. It’s their time of year. They gear up for it like football season. This year is especially exciting for them because it’s a mid-term election, when the fate of the Obama presidency, if not the entire world, is hanging on the results of “key” House and Senate races. I know this because every cable news outlet has screamed it at me incessantly since they all shut down their Gulf oil spill bureaus last month.

‘Tis the season for polls and pundits and white guys in suits talking about how the economy and immigration and unemployment and oh yeah, gay marriage, are driving the electorate this way or that, all of them talking like they must know what they’re talking about. (It’s not like a team of producers just handed them a script or anything.) We at home watch, and assume that this election season must be the most important thing happening in the world right now. Anderson Cooper is wearing a coat and tie, for goodness sake!

The reality is that maybe five million people combined watch the punditry that goes on during prime time cable “news” shows on any given night, yet the sheer repetition and self-referencing and synergizing of all these news brands makes it feel like they’re on everywhere. My TV producer friends insist that this preponderance of “news” makes for a better-informed electorate and maybe even a better democracy.

Really? Rachel Maddow cackling at Arizona Governor Jan Brewer for choking badly during a debate last week? Glenn Beck mooning half of America? A 10-minute segment on the national political ramifications of Bristol Palin’s “Dancing with the Stars” appearance? That’s some deep discoursing, man.

I don’t think I will shock any of you when I suggest that cable news hosts are not much more than news characters. I think I’m supposed to be in on the joke, like appreciating professional wrestling. Still, I can’t count how many times friends and colleagues will tell me that some guy they saw on Olbermann last night was so smart. “Aren’t you just saying that because he agrees with you?” I ask (I guess) piously. “No,” says my friend, “Republicans really do suck.”

Elections, and the elected officials they produce, have important roles to play in our society, especially, as they say, in these tough times. But if this is the level of critical thinking applied to the important issues of the day by the most “informed” of us, what are we to expect from the rest of us who are simply ready for some football?

What’s broken in politics and how do we fix it? I doubt if this column, or this columnist, has the answer. But I can guarantee you that there’s going to be hours of it on TV this fall.

David Cruz is a New Jersey-based journalist. He has covered statewide and local politics for a number of radio, TV and print outlets, hosted talk shows on WBGO and WNYC, and contributed essays and feature stories to NPR’s Latino USA, All Things Considered and Morning Edition.