Haircuts and Gossip -- Pageantlike Presidential Election Coverage; Where's the Real News?

There's a semantic problem with the word "politics." It has two major meanings, which are connected but distinct. Politics is the art of governing nations, but it can also mean the tactics employed to attain or retain governmental control. This creates an obstacle for the person who reads the "politics" section of his favorite newspaper or website, or who watches shows that purport to cover politics, with the intent of learning about what his government is doing. Often, there's really nothing at all about running the government; it's all about running for government. Check out the last four stories that plopped out of the Associated Press' "Politics" feed:

  • Sharpton denies disputing Romney's faith

  • Obama overstates Kansas tornado deaths

  • Edwards discusses time at hedge fund

  • Spitzer, O'Malley to endorse Clinton

There's nothing there about what's happening in the outside world, nor any coverage of actual governmental activities. It's just gossip about celebrities. The fact that those celebrities happen to be members of our government is incidental. These stories aren't about policy, or politics, really. They're about the candidates' chances to be the last one standing.

This is not a new phenomenon, of course, but it does seem to get a worse every time, and in vast increments. Election coverage is not only deplorably shallow; its nonstop, news-cycle-dominating prominence is obscuring larger reality. It's stealth entertainment news, wearing the guise of legitimate national affairs journalism. There's nothing significantly different in the tone of coverage of the Obama-Clinton rivalry from that of Paris and Nicole. Romney's Mormonism is handled no differently than Tom Cruise's Scientology.

That would be bad enough in itself, but the worse problem is, while we're torturing ourselves with a harrowing, incessant, two-year pageant of inauthenticity, real shit is still happening all over the world. And we're hearing even less than usual about it, because it's just so much easier for commentators to talk about what has essentially become the Olympics of fund-raising than to address the actual government or what it actually does. By comparing stats and rumors about presidential hopefuls, columnists and talking heads are able to give the impression of covering the government without actually doing anything of the sort. Watch Joe Scarborough segue easily from a segment about the latest presidential gaffe to a schadenfreude session over Paris Hilton's jail sentence, and you'll see. He doesn't even have to switch gears; it's the same damn thing. This type of presidential infotainment is not even taking up half of the space allotted for political coverage; it's taking up nearly all of it, the remainder of which is mainly filled by "White House says this, critics say that." And we're a year and a half from what will surely be too brief a reprieve. For all this time, the presidential one-note symphony will drown out what little serious news our already atrophic press might otherwise present.

Let's take a serious, and seriously neglected, news item for example: The Iraqi Hydrocarbon Law.

The Hydrocarbon Law is universally detested by Iraqis and hasn't passed yet, but "tremendous" pressure is being exerted on the parliament by the United States and the International Monetary Fund, the mother of all loan sharks. The IMF has a habit of lending huge amounts of money to struggling nations and making the privatization of their natural resources a condition of said loans. The same has been done doubly in Iraq. The administration and the IMF describe the law as a benevolent revenue-sharing program that gives oil money to the Iraqis, but the law makes 81 percent of Iraq's known oil deposits available to multinational firms -- Exxon, Shell, BP, Chevron and the like. While the proposed law has met ironically unified resistance in Iraq and may not pass even in a compromised form, its initial draft -- reviewed by nine oil companies and the U.S. and U.K. governments long before Iraqi MPs ever got a peek--should have been a major story itself, because it was the other shoe, the inevitable punch line to the WMD joke. What the Hydrocarbon Law in its pure form said was yes, after all, this thing was always about the oil.

It provides double the usual share of profits to go to private oil companies. During the first phase, in which the private firms pay for the building and repair of necessary infrastructure, two-thirds of profits go to the corporation, supposedly until it recoups its initial outlay, after which it keeps 20 percent (assuming that phase is ever officially reached). Similar agreements in other countries provide 40 percent for the recovery phase and 10 percent thereafter. But beyond the plainly unfair and exploitative terms, the truth is that such private investment is not at all necessary for Iraq to develop its resources --the oil itself is more than enough collateral for Iraq to finance its own development. I'm pretty sure, however, that is a detail you will never hear from Katie Couric.

But there's another important detail here: The law allows for 30-year contracts, another eye-popping departure from similar agreements. What that means is that, for at least 30 years, somebody's going to have to protect that infrastructure from the inevitable rebel attacks. Who do you think that's going to be? Add the three-decade contracts to the fact that the United States is building numerous large permanent bases in locations that, predictably, correspond with the richest known oil deposits throughout Eastern Iraq, not to mention a new embassy larger than Vatican City, and the scope of our occupational plans for the region comes into horrifying focus.

The implications are clear: This is an oil war, and we're not leaving. You'd think, with a Congress full of benchmark setters promising to end the war in a matter of months, and a White House still pretending to give a damn about democracy and prosperity for Iraqis, these details would not just be interesting to news agencies, but vital to any realistic assessment of the Iraqi situation. Unfortunately, they're too busy asking John Edwards how much he pays for a haircut.

If the hydrocarbon law is too international for your tastes, then consider the fact that, on Monday, May 7, the Senate yet again voted to prohibit the importation of cheaper prescription drugs from Canada, the EU, Australia, New Zealand and Japan -- all nations with considerably more regulatory credibility than the United States. It's no secret why these seemingly idiotic votes get cast. According to the Center for Public Integrity, pharmaceutical lobbyists spent $182 million bribing Congress in a year and a half preceding the midterm elections. While shameless prostitutes like Wyoming Republican Mike Enzi invented nonexistent safety issues to justify the vote, the truth is these are the same pills made by the same firms; they only charge these other countries less because their governments aren't willing to engage in price-fixing. It would be ironic that the Republicans in Congress abandon their free-market principles only when it comes to trade protectionism for one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, except that they don't really have any principles. There is only one reason to deny cheaper pills to Americans; even the Associated Press had to acknowledge it was "a triumph for the pharmaceutical industry."

This vote was one of the clearest, most indisputable recent examples of the single biggest problem America faces today: Our government is one massive integrity auction. All 49 senators who voted against importing these cheaper drugs, a notion that, by the way, enjoys widespread public support, should be called out by name and aggressively pursued on the issue. But no. Al Sharpton says Obama's not black enough, so the big story -- a story about what government really does, when it isn't trying to sell itself to you -- just falls away. And you probably don't even notice, because you're busy watching, reading, thinking and arguing about plainly scripted trivia regarding bullshit artists of various skill who want your vote -- in a year and a goddamned half.

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