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I Want My RNC
By Betsy Nagler

Being there certainly did that for me. Watching all the Republican hoo-ha, I was having flashbacks to my own MTV years in the late '80s -- which, unlike the people I was working with and the audience we were shooting for, I was old enough to remember vividly. Back then, I was a political science major at Stanford, so along with MTV I was also watching Oliver North and trying to tune out Willie Horton. More often, I was marching against what we feared was the imminent overturn of Roe v. Wade or watching my boyfriend do "guerrilla theater" that re-enacted the massacre of civilians by Salvadoran death squads. It was sort of exciting to be angry all the time but it was also exhausting, and eventually, it drove me out of politics and into film, in the interest of finding a better way to make a difference. Now, ironically, MTV had pulled me back in -- and even more ironically, into the same politics. The guys on stage could talk about compassionate conservatism all they wanted, I knew these people and I knew what they would do. The first thing I did when I got back to New York was to send $100 out of my paycheck to Al Gore.

But my behind-the-scenes experience was not to be shared, alas, by the new MTV generation. When I tuned into MTV's half-hour, "Choose or Lose" special on the RNC, I saw that everything we'd shot had been reduced to a three-second sound bite. There were glimpses of politicians to be had as long as you didn't blink at the wrong moment, but there wasn't time for anyone to say anything, much less anything substantial. All that had been distilled from our hours of footage was one big, self-promoting music video. Sure, it made the convention seem a lot more lively than it was; maybe it would encourage the kids to go out and vote, but based on what, who had the sharpest tie? What was the point, I wondered, of encouraging people to choose when you didn't give them any real information about their choices?

I'll admit that the convention doesn't make good TV. People who watch it won't see the real people that I saw -- the Newt Gingrich who was actually quite friendly and charming (so that's how he got elected!) or the John McCain who directed his greetings at my chest rather than my face (sad but true). What viewers are fed is one big excuse to par-tay with the party and hear the party line over and over and over again. MTV was just trying to make it a better party for its core audience -- the one with the lightening-short attention span. The networks do the same by cutting down their coverage to only the "important" speeches and punditry to make them more watchable. But should participatory democracy be watchable? Instead of trying to improve the armchair viewing experience of the conventions, maybe we should be trying to get people to talk about why they have become so boring; about the fact that they no longer have a real function because the primaries determine the candidates earlier and earlier, so that more money can be saved for the general election. Until we address the real problems -- lack of debate within the parties themselves, less and less influence over their agendas and platforms by the people who cast their votes and more and more by corporations and special interests who contribute the money that drives political campaigns -- the conventions will stay boring, with everyone putting on those frozen, "We're one big happy family" smiles for the cameras. And maybe they should, as a reminder that our system will continue to function dysfunctionally until we do something about it.

MTV, the networks, the R and DNCs, they get it wrong by trying to make politics into something it shouldn't be: infotainment. People should take an interest in politics because it matters, not because it's fun. It's not fun. It can be thrilling, as Barbara Jordan's speech was in 1976 and Barack Obama's speech -- the one the networks missed -- was this year; or it can be disturbing, as Pat Buchanan's speech was in 1992, the last speech that might actually have affected an election. In each case, a man or a woman simply stood up and said what they thought and if you were watching, like it or not, you had to decide what you thought about it - which, my Commie-pinko-card-carrying-ACLU-liberal-feminazi family would say, is what politics should be. Whether we're watching Fox News or Fahrenheit 9-11, politics should be chewed thoroughly, not chopped up and pureed into Jell-O for us so it can be sucked down like a music video. It should make us do what I've tried to do since I went to the RNC: get off the couch and into the streets, to protests and rallies, to register voters and volunteer in the community, to create change.

But then that wouldn't be very good for ratings, would it?

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