Columns » Gene Lyons

Big talk

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As the national political melodrama drew near its end, a sometime email correspondent in Texas worried about my safety. An uxorious older gentleman with a love of horses and a weakness for conspiracy theories, he was always puzzled and often angered by my apostasy.

"Being down there in Arkansas," he warned, "you may not like the way Trump's supporters respond if they've been reading your columns."

I answered that while I've been making my views clear for decades, "I've never even had anybody speak to me rudely about it."

The rural county I called home for the past nine years has no stoplights and lots more cows than people. It voted 2-to-1 for Mitt Romney in 2008, and doubtless favored Trump, too. (Although not the African-American precincts around our place.) But it's considered rude to argue about politics or religion. People just don't do it. I had neighbors and friends I spoke with regularly whose political views I could only guess at.

Only a handful of people who agreed with my columns ever mentioned them. Otherwise, well, I take good care of my animals, and while not real handy with a chainsaw, I'm very good at catching escaped horses and herding cows back home. Also, everybody likes my wife. On balance, then, not a bad old boy for a transplanted Yankee.

My Texas correspondent nevertheless predicted rough times ahead.

"The peoples of the world," he added, "ain't going to go quietly into one world globalism."

A chimerical fear, of course. Anybody with a lick of sense knows global government isn't remotely possible. Nation states are fragmenting all over the world. However, theological anticommunism has morphed into a generalized fear of The Other, symbolized by Barack Obama and transferred to Hillary Clinton — probably the most lied-about American politician since FDR, or maybe Lincoln.

I urged him not to send his money to fight this imaginary threat.

But never fear, there's a guy named Terry in Pennsylvania who's keeping up the honor of crank emailers everywhere. To hear him tell it, Terry — a teacher, coach and combat veteran, he says — is itching to give me a beating:

"If you saw me in person ... I would show you what a tough guy, real man, looks like. I train with weights 5 days a week and martial arts 3 days a week. Also, a former Marine who has dodged enemy sniper fire. I could breathe on your scrawny ass and send you to the ground. You're too scared to meet me in person without bringing law enforcement, that's what women do. Big talk from a closet homo, in deep love with Bill Cosby Clinton."

Um, scrawny? No. But of course, I'm never going to see Terry in person, because guys who send threatening emails ... . Well, they send threatening emails. It goes with the territory. Always has.

Sure, there's been a lot of that this election year. However, journalists who ought to know better are taking this exciting voter anger theme more seriously than they should. Obama's the most popular president since Reagan, and for good reason. But if you promise to put people on national TV to vent, then vent they surely will.

That was my main reaction to a recent "60 Minutes" piece featuring treacly, but clever, Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who gathered a carefully selected focus group that pronounced anathema on both presidential candidates.

Most blamed social media, if not all media, for their disillusionment. Well, yes. Certainly the anonymity and semi-anonymity of social media — Twitter, Facebook, etc. — have given the Terrys of the world an expansive space to vent. I doubt the guy acts that way at work.

Along with that has gone a steep drop in the credibility of the "mainstream" media — something I've been writing about for 25 years — and a concomitant rise in "alternative" sources of misinformation and downright propaganda.

Walter Cronkite's gone, and he's never coming back.

Hence the first true "reality TV" presidential election in U.S. history, essentially produced and directed by cable TV news.

Writing in The Daily Beast, Stuart Stevens, chief strategist for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, summed things up: "It wasn't really a coalition of angry working-class voters that led Trump's flat-earth crusade. It was a coalition of angry rich media figures who know ... there is a lot of money to be made denying reality. It's Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Steve Bannon, Rush Limbaugh and the usual carnival barkers, most of whom are too smart to believe their own nonsense. But they have made fortunes peddling bile and prejudice and the market continues to be good."

The Washington Post's Paul Farhi recently documented the cable networks' "unprecedented profits." CNN is expected to clear $1 billion, Fox News $1.67 billion and MSNBC $279.6 million from staging this degrading but exciting spectacle.

Any questions?

So far, however, it's still just a TV show.

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