Celebrities and Politics: Why Are Voters Attracted to Shiny Objects?

What is it about celebrities?

Democrat Jon Ossoff wants to win an open primary on April 18 so he can represent Georgia’s 6th Congressional District.

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Actress Alyssa Milano canvassed Ossoff’s district for him in March and offered voters a ride to an advance polling location.

According to various media, actors Alyssa Milano and Christopher Gorham‏, want Ossoff to win, too. Media tell us lots of other liberal celebrity actors support Ossoff as well, including Chelsea Handler, Kristen Bell, John Leguizamo, Sam Waterston, Connie Britton, Jessica Lange, Lynda Carter, Jon Cryer, Debra Messing, George Takei and Rhea Perlman.

I’m not sure yet where Kim Kardashian, who’s so well known for her political sophistication and deep thinking, stands on Ossoff’s race, but I’m sure the media will tell us if she ever blurts out something.

How did we get to the point where this matters, or at least reporters, reporters, pundits and political consultants think it does?

Did you know Elvis Presley supported Democrat Adlai Stevenson in the 1956 presidential election and John F. Kennedy in 1960, or that he shared his strong opinions on America’s cultural decline with President Nixon?

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President Nixon and Elvis Presley at the White House, 1970

Elvis was particularly incensed about the behavior of actress Jane Fonda, who was photographed at an anti-aircraft gun placement in Hanoi during the Vietnam war.

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Actress Jane Fonda at an anti-aircraft position in North Vietnam in July 1972

Like an updated Tokyo Rose, she’d also gone on Hanoi radio and petitioned American fighting men stationed to the south to lay down their arms because they were fighting an unjust war against the peace-loving North Vietnamese.

Did any of us care what Elvis thought about political issues? I don’t think so.

Did anybody vote for Adlai Stevenson because Elvis endorsed him? I doubt it.

How did we reach a point where the political opinions of pampered, self-absorbed, and often empty- headed celebrities influence our voting? It’s a virulent, ugly form of anti-intellectualism.

 Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised.

Americans are woefully uninformed about history and public policy. According to a Pew Research project, about a quarter of American adults (26%) say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form.

A recent Fairleigh Dickinson University survey revealed that only 34 percent of registered voters can name the three branches of government, only 69 percent know which party controls the House of Representatives and just 21 percent can name the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Hard to believe, but according to Newsweek, 70 percent of Americans have no idea what the constitution, the country’s most important historical, political, and legal document even is.

But Americans do know the names, sexual proclivities, marital history, makeup choices, fashion choices and car crash-like personal lives of celebrities and, increasingly, they pay attention to their political opinions. And the media is thrilled to offer celebrities a platform to say what they think about climate change, refugees, the electoral college or whatever, no matter how nonsensical or shallow those views are or how hyping their views is a devaluation of actual expertise.

If there’s any hope it’s helpful to remember that celebrities like Katy Perry came out for Hillary in droves….and we know how that ended.

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The long, slow, agonizing death of The Oregonian

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Top veteran reporters leaving. Circulation shrinking. Local bureaus closing. Regional papers consolidating. Daily print editions disappearing. Morale sinking.

It’s come to this at our once-proud and prominent newspaper, The Oregonian.

Founded in 1850 as a four page weekly, its first issue printed in a log shack on SW First and Morrison, The Oregonian has a long and storied history.

The headquarters of The Oregonian from 1892 to 1948.

The headquarters of The Oregonian from 1892 to 1948.

In June 1948, The newspaper moved to a new building on Southwest Broadway.

In June 1948, The newspaper moved to a new building on Southwest Broadway.

Daily newspapers like The Oregonian were once pervasive throughout the United States, with many communities having both a morning and evening paper, and sometimes a weekly local paper as well.

When Advance Publications bought The Oregonian in 1950 for $5.6 million, its daily circulation was 214,916. The Portland Metro Area’s population that year totaled 704,829.

Coincidentally, a significant challenge to the newspaper industry’s business model, dependent on print advertising, also began about this time. Although there’s a tendency today to attribute the decline of newspapers to the Internet, it might better be tied to the advent of television, which sucked away advertising dollars that covered costs and generated profits.

In 1950, five years after the advent of commercial television in the United States, television penetration of U.S. households was only 9.0%. By 1955 it was up to 64.5% and by 1960 87.1 percent. As TV penetration grew, newspapers’ share of ad revenue shrank.

Newspapers commanded 37 percent of all U.S. advertising revenues in 1950. By 1960, that share had shrunk to 31 percent, the first downward shift in newspaper advertising since the depression. During that same 10-year period, TV’s share of total advertising rose from 3 to 30 percent.

I joined The Oregonian as a business reporter in 1987. It was a robust, well-respected paper then, with a proud past and a much-anticipated future. Daily Monday-Friday circulation was 319,624; Sunday circulation 375,914.

When I left the paper 10 years later in 1997 to take a corporate communications job, Daily Monday-Friday circulation was 360,000, Sunday circulation 450,000. We were on a roll.

Much of that success has been attributed to Sandra Mims Rowe, who came on as editor in 1993 and tried to energize the newsroom with a hiring spree, bringing on reporters and editors from around the country. Under her leadership, the newsroom grew from about 280 to more than 400 and distinguished itself by winning five Pulitzers.

But the paper wasn’t able to escape the tumult of the newspaper business during her tenure. By the time she retired from The Oregonian in Dec. 2009, she had to cut staff, salaries and benefits as circulation and revenue declined.

In 2009, The Oregonian’s daily circulation sat at 268,572 and Sunday circulation at 344,950, causing the paper to lose its position as one of the top 25 Sunday circulation papers in the country. That same year, the paper announced a long-term policy that protected full-time employees from layoffs for economic or technological reasons would end.

By 2012, daily circulation sank to 228,599, only slightly higher than circulation in 1950, and the declines have continued.

The Oregonian’s footprint will shrink further later this month when three of its Washington County weeklies, the 143-year-old Hillsboro Argus, the 4-year-old Forest Grove Leader and the 3-year-old Beaverton Leader, will meld into one publication, the Washington County Argus. Their consolidation will mean even less local media coverage and impact.

Meanwhile, talented reporters have been fleeing in droves, some pushed out, others motivated by buy-outs. Some have decamped to other papers, others to corporate and government communications jobs. At the same time the once powerful paper has seen its clout diminish as it has abandoned rural Oregon and 7-day-a-week print distribution.

The Oregonian’s enhanced focus on digital news delivery is showing real signs of life, but it’s not maintaining the paper’s prestige and power. Digital numbers on OregonLive.com are up impressively (6,339,000 unique visitors in Jan. 2015). But with the average visitor to a newspaper website only staying on the site for three minutes per visit, many digital visitors to OregonLive.com are short-termers and aren’t loyal Oregonian readers.

In addition, new digital advertising revenue at newspapers across the country is substantially less than the print revenue that is being lost. In 2005, U.S. newspaper ad revenue totaled $49.4 billion, $47.4 billion from print and $2 billion from digital. By 2014, print ad revenue had shrunk by about two-thirds to $16.4 billion, but digital ad revenue had only grown to $3.5 billion, according to the Pew Research Center.

So here we are. A once mighty paper hollowed out and  humbled. A growing population served by a smaller paper. A weakened paper that no longer drives the daily discussion at the proverbial water cooler (or over a latte). A diminished, editorially impotent presence with a dwindling ability to hold powerful interests accountable.

None of this is good news if you want an educated, informed public in a position to make wise judgments about public policy.

“The way to prevent irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs through the channel of the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1787.

That is as true today.

Brian Williams is gone. So what?

For all the sturm and drang about Brian Williams’ banishment from NBC Nightly News, who really cares?

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Brian Williams

When Walter Cronkite anchored the CBS Evening News, about 28 million viewers tuned in on average.

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Today, fewer viewers tune in to CBS, ABC and NBC all together on a typical night.

The most recent State of the News Media study from the Pew Research Center reported that an average of just 22.6 million people watched one of the three commercial broadcast news programs on ABC, CBS or NBC in 2013, only 7 percent of the country’s 316.5 million population. And NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, the most-watched program, had an average of only 8.5 million viewers.

Even recognition of nightly news anchors has fallen precipitously. Another Pew Research study reported that in 1985, 47 percent of people polled recognized the face of CBS News anchor Dan Rather. In 2013, just 27 percent recognized Brian Williams.

The age of network evening news viewers is slipping, too, according to Pew Research. While a slight majority (56%) of those 65 and older say they watch nightly network news, only 26 percent of those age 30-49 do and just18 percent of Americans under 30.

Morning news is in trouble, too, with average viewership of 13.4 million. Even the leader, ABC’s Good Morning America, averaged only 5.5 million viewers

The networks’ Sunday morning political news shows aren’t exactly barn-burners either. In the last six months of 2012, Face the Nation on CBS averaged just 2.97 million viewers, NBC’s Meet the Press 2.94 million viewers and ABC’s This Week 2.57 million viewers.

So where are Americans going for their news?

Not print newspapers. Their circulation has been dropping like a stone. And even though many of the top online news sites belong to print newspaper companies, online ad revenue is far from replacing lost print ad revenue.

“As the digital revolution continues to erode the print newspaper business, the only ones likely to survive will be those backed by the almost unlimited funds of billionaires…,” observes Accuracy in Media. The only problem is that the number of struggling newspapers far outnumbers the billionaires willing to save them.”

In other words, the present and the future are digital. So much for evening network news anchors. Sorry, Lester.