Has our democracy become a reality show?

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Adam Goodman, special to the Tampa Bay Times Published: April 5, 2018Updated: April 5, 2018 at 02:11 PM Hollywood lost a legend this week, and America a road map, when Hill Street Blues creator Steven Bochco played out his final episode on Earth. Bochco was the pioneering force in television, and mentor to countless entertainment giants, who braved censors and cynics to craft unforgettable stories grounded on the streets of urban America.
His Emmy Award-winning Hill Street Blues for NBC (together with Fame, Taxi andCheers) anchored what was known in the ’80s as the best night in television. It was a landmark show because it dealt with reality as a life force worth experiencing.
Race relations. Police courage and corruption. Gender equality. Crime and redemption. It was a projection of real life, and real conflict, as seen through the eyes of city cops who confronted tragedy for a living and overcame overwhelming odds armed only with the desire to “do good.”
Spurred on by Sgt. Esterhaus’ roll call warning, “Remember, let’s be careful out there,” the cast became emissaries who were out to calm the turbulence swirling around them.
Back then, reality was seen as a steadying force, where people could talk without pointing fingers of blame, without resorting to ideological rigidness or partisan pettiness, without sounding and being hateful.
Now fast forward to today. Government has become a 24-hour reality show, and its leader is creating reality by the second, tweet after tweet, post after post, firing after firing. In its wake we’ve seen less heroism and more hedonism, less truth and more fiction, as the nation lurches from nuclear showdowns to tariff-spawned meltdowns.
Don’t believe for a second that Donald Trump isn’t enjoying (nearly) every minute of it, because unlike the chattering class and their friends in the media, this commander in chief seems to care little for the polls. Like any other broadcast, cable or communications executive, President Trump knows it’s not about popularity but the size of the audience. It’s not about raves but ratings.
It’s not about how many he’s turning off, but how many are tuning in. Like him or hate him, it matters not as long as his reality show doesn’t shed audience along the way.
This alone proves, in the mind of the president, that he’s a winner.
Consciously or not, Donald Trump is on to something. Reality is now an around-the-clock addiction untethered by right or wrong, what’s popular and what’s not, what’s fake and what’s true. Reality just is, and it’s consuming all of us, all the time, as we literally stumble through life (and into each other) with eyes looking downward at smartphones purporting to make us smart.
We ingest information without fully digesting it. We live in the now with little patience to reflect on the past or commune about the future. And when we get too much reality, we become increasingly numb to its significance, its life-changing moments, its heroes and its heretics.
What’s missing is we are so mesmerized by watching this realty show that few are willing to rewrite the dialogue. We accept it on its terms, not ours.
What’s missing is the lost art of eye contact, where communication can be wordless yet wonderful.
Yet once in a while, the world looks up when a new sound fills the air, a new reality we can breathe in without choking.
Like a tragedy in a Florida school that has children speaking truth to power, and setting an example worthy of following, not only for their peers but for their parents. They understand silence is not always golden, that it can be deadly — that when we don’t speak up, lives are lost.
We can debate and disagree on many things, but when it comes to saving the lives of children, aren’t we all “Parklanders”? Looking for inspiration and precedence? Go back 33 years to remember again how the world responded to a life-starving African famine with We Are the World. (Watch it at bit.ly/2q5Xbl4.)
Now here’s the good news. There is a new reality on the horizon that political America is just starting to grasp. Just ask the NRA, which faces reputational free fall ignited by Americans too young to vote but too compelling to ignore. Or ask officeholders who find themselves in electoral hot water because they valued contributions over conscience.
Steven Bochco understood a reality show can be intoxicating, but he also knew that if it became offensive and off-putting, viewers would change the channel.
In our democracy, “we the people” have the option to do just that.
Adam Goodman is a national Republican media consultant based in St. Petersburg and the first Edward R. Murrow Fellow at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

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