As the 2010s come to a close, so does the moment I dread, trying to make sense of the past decade.
It’s not easy to tell what distinguishes this decade from those that came before it.
This isn’t the Roaring ’20s with their jazz clubs and flappers. It’s not the 1930s with that Depression. It’s certainly not the 1960s, OK, boomer?
I expect the 2010s to be remembered as a political decade that spanned the gulf between President Barack “No Drama” Obama and President Donald “Mo’ Drama” Trump.
It was a media decade that began with the birth of Instagram and ended with me still trying to figure out what Instagram is good for. (“Twitter for illiterates” sounds about right to me, although it does do a good job of distributing your neighbors’ vacation photos in a format you can conveniently ignore.)
Its defining moment may well have come in November when Baby Yoda, the little green scene-stealing puppet in the Disney+ “Star Wars” series “The Mandalorian,” made news about itself. He — or she, we’re never really told — drove almost twice as many average social media interactions, according to NewsWhip and Axios, as any of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.
W.C. Fields famously advised that actors refuse to work with children or animal acts. Baby Yoda seems to offer a bit of both. May the Force be with him. Or her.
I’ll remember the 2010s as a media decade, a time when more people than ever before used the internet to do what former Federal Communications Commissioner Nicholas Johnson advised in the title of his 1970 book, “How to Talk Back to Your Television Set.”
Today we grapple with the new challenges of separating real news from fake news on the internet, where political propaganda has been empowered by targeted marketing aimed at steering around the least persuadable to reach the most gullible audiences.
It is entirely appropriate that President Trump, a real-estate developer and reality-TV host, came to power in this new media age. He long ago perfected the art of relentless self-promotion across multiple media platforms — as varied as tabloid gossip pages and get-rich-now advice books.
That probably explains why he waited until 2016 to run for president, when the Democratic field would be cleared of the charismatic Obama. After rolling through his Republican competitors, who failed to take him seriously enough until it was too late, he beat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who received more total votes but not in the right states to win the Electoral College.
Now a new crop of Democratic candidates is being judged, not the least on how well they come across on television. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is going full media blitz. Instead of going on the road to run in the early primaries, he’s using his fortune to buy millions of dollars in TV ads nationwide.
By Christmas, he reached 5% approval in the polls, which put him in fifth place, behind South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (9%), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (15%), Sen. Bernie Sanders (17%) and former Vice President Joe Biden (29%). He led Trump by six points in a head-to-head matchup in a Quinnipiac University poll, 48% to 42%.
It’s too early to make too much of that, but if the charisma-challenged founder of Bloomberg News performs well enough when actual votes are cast, he could achieve yet another marriage of media and politics.
I wish I could feel happier about that. Unfortunately, the slow but steady takeover of politics and government by media and the big money it takes to purchase big advertising remind me of another media studies book from a past era: the late Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.”
In that 1985 book about how media are reshaping our culture, he feared that we were wrong to congratulate ourselves for avoiding the authoritarian “Big Brother” horrors of George Orwell’s “1984.”
We should also remember, he reminded us, of Aldous Huxley’s equally chilling “Brave New World.”
Whereas Orwell feared those who would ban books, Postman wrote, Huxley feared “that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.”
His concern, like mine, is to have the sort of well-informed electorate on which democracy depends. Unfortunately, there also is the reality that the late Fox News chief Roger Ailes says in the Showtime miniseries based on Gabriel Sherman’s bestseller “The Loudest Voice in the Room.”
“People don’t want to be informed,” he says, “they want to feel informed.”
Maybe so. But sometimes our feelings can fool us.
Clarence Page email@example.com Copyright Chicago Tribune