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During her career as a famous San Francisco-based global agitator, Medea Benjamin has seen enough political tragedy and travesty to challenge anyone's view of reality. She has been quoted as recalling that her older sister's boyfriend, while a soldier in Vietnam, sent back the ear of a Vietnamese man. She subsequently became an anti-war and anti-poverty activist; in that role, she has seen children starving in Mozambique, identified suffering caused by Cambodian sweatshops, and repeatedly traveled to Iraq, where she has witnessed death, destruction, and social chaos. But none of these experiences prepared her for the existential heart of darkness she's currently confronting: Benjamin hopes to be chosen as a contestant in a TV reality show.
"It's too bad. Their process has been pretty atrocious," says Benjamin, a co-founder of the travel agency and gift shop Global Exchange who has tried, and, it seems, failed, to earn a spot on the upcoming reality series American Candidate, a Showtime cable offering that has 12 contestants vie with one another to be a "candidate" for president. "They want people to think [contestants will be chosen by] the number of supporters you have. But I think they are using criteria other than that. I think there's total lack of clarity about the whole thing."
Now, I realize the American radical left has a lot on its plate right now, with the war in Iraq, the war on terror, government attacks on civil liberties, and the continuing scourge of poverty, here and around the world. But I'd like to nonetheless propose one more issue: the lack of integrity of Hollywood reality shows. They're the most ubiquitous source of truth, insight, and human connection America has right now, and Benjamin (whom Newsday last week called "one of America's most committed -- and most effective -- fighters for international human rights") has tipped me to apparent corruption behind the reality facade.
Benjamin was one of 1,000 people who participated in a supposed competition to be considered as a contestant on American Candidate, scheduled to appear on the Viacom subsidiary Showtime in August.
The show was conceived as a sort of political version of American Idol. In it, 12 contestants will compete in a series of statesmanship-oriented challenges, Survivor-style, while real-life political consultants scrutinize their moves. At the end of each episode, America will vote someone off the air. During the final two episodes, candidates will debate each other. The winner of the competition gets to make a speech on Showtime and receives $200,000 in "campaign funds" that can be (but don't have to be) used to abet a very short-lived presidential candidacy. The show has reportedly passed muster with the Federal Election Commission, perhaps because participants won't be allowed to actually campaign for president while the program is on the air and will be able to declare as write-in candidates only during the month between the show's end and the presidential election in early November.
The concept was fine by Benjamin.
"I was doing it only because it wasn't real," she says, contending that she'd hoped to use the show to air her favorite political issues, as enumerated on her Showtime Web page: "I am passionate about wanting to see my country take a different path: one that promotes peaceful solutions to international conflicts, and one that uses its vast resources to eliminate hunger and poverty at home and abroad. This program can give a voice to those of us presently marginalized by the two dominant parties and can help revitalize our political system."
But in the way of television reality shows, there were important components of the American Candidateprocess that seemed convincingly real, yet were phony. The show ran an aggressive public relations effort that encouraged people to become "candidates" and then "campaign" to become one of 12 finalists who would appear on the program. The show ran a cross-promotional campaign on Yahoo!'s HotJobs that said, "Wanted: Leader of the Free World." Producers required "candidates" to fill out elaborate questionnaires. The contestants were encouraged to attend "campaign" events around America. The producers urged "candidates" to keep campaign Weblogs, all with a stated aim of attracting "supporters," who, it seemed to go without saying, would bolster "candidates'" chances of making it on the show.
Many of the 1,000 "candidates" seemed to take this encouragement at face value.
One radio talk-show host used his job to flog his "candidacy," wrangling 96,378 clicks on the "Support Me!" hyperlink on his special Showtime Web page. A schoolteacher induced his students to peruse his site, winning 7,531 "votes." A sex-manual author informed Amazon.com book shoppers that he was a "contestant" on American Candidate, garnering himself 2,355 clicks. Benjamin enlisted her notoriety in the peace activist world -- boosted last week by the Newsday piece -- and earned herself 3,935 votes.
And a Web designer produced a site titled "American Voices," complete with endorsement blurbs from photogenic everyday Americans. "You have put me into the Top 100 Candidates with the most supporters," the designer effused. "Thank you for clicking the 'Support Me!' button and for spreading word to your friends and family. It is really having an impact!"
In reality, it wasn't having any impact at all, acknowledged American Candidateproducer R.J. Cutler, best known for his 1993 documentary The War Room.
"Getting clicks plays no role in the selection processes," Cutler told me last week. "I'm happy to say to you that that is a mistaken impression. You won't be able to find anywhere that anyone associated with the show that says Web site support has any direct impact on somebody getting on the show. The decisions as to who gets on the show are made by producers of the show -- by me -- and by Showtime working together. I take full responsibility for that. The online support is a way of building a community of people in common with American Candidateand support a forum for ideas outside the two-party process."
So the "candidates" were tricked into pointlessly promoting the show, which will be cast like any other TV program -- with a casting call.
From a philosophical-consistency point of view, it's entirely appropriate for a show promising a glimpse inside the reality of politics to launch itself by duping 1,000 or so hapless wannabes into misallocating their idealistic impulses. And I can hardly fault a reality-show producer for conflating the concepts of "plausible deniability" and "truth," particularly when that producer specializes in depicting American politics. But the fact is, I wanted to see Benjamin make it onto the show; there's reason to believe she's been aced out; and as a columnist, I get to publicly complain when I don't get my way.
On a local level, radical progressives can have a detrimental effect on political discourse. In San Francisco, the rad-progs don't have many real issues to fight about, given that almost everyone else is a leftist. So we get local "struggles" over the proper type of backlash against the dot-com boom and the precise method by which the government should take over the electricity system. These are facsimiles -- or, if you will, reality-show versions -- of meaningful politics. They make it easy to mistake self-described San Francisco "progressives" for buffoons.
On a national level, though, radical progressivism is suddenly where the real, live action is. Leftists have been complaining for three years that the Bush administration co-opted big news organizations in the propaganda buildup to the Iraq War; last week the New York Times admitted as much in an editor's note mea culpa. Radical leftists have long been lonely voices complaining about the worsening plight of America's working poor, the subject of an emphatic Business Week cover story this month. Human rights violations in Iraq have been a lonely, radical-left pet cause since the war began; Benjamin has visited that country multiple times to draw attention to this once-esoteric issue, which suddenly has America riveted. Fringe leftists, including Benjamin, have tirelessly highlighted the lousy environmental record of American companies overseas -- fruitlessly it seemed, until Fortune magazine this month published a feature showing how corporations are succumbing to radical environmentalist pressure to change their ways.
The list goes on. Out of nowhere, the left's issues are becoming America's issues. Benjamin, a strident, articulate person with a real sense of humor, is perfect for bringing this trend into America's living rooms via a TV game show designed to depict a version of political discourse. But it seems she did not make the cut.
According to a Los Angeles Times article last week, American Candidate has selected 24 semifinalists, an assertion a Showtime publicist endorsed, adding that "we're not releasing the names at this time."
Benjamin thinks she's not one of those names. "They never invited me to L.A.," she says.
Cutler, who makes his living in the reality/not-reality business, used words to create the impression that neither Benjamin nor any of her 1,000 cohorts had yet been knocked off the show's contestant list, while refusing to deny publicist-confirmed reports that this had in fact happened. And he had a realityist's nuanced view of the accuracy of last week's Times feature on the show, in which he was quoted saying, "As David Mamet says, 'Always tell the truth, it's the easiest thing to remember.' Eventually, these kinds of disconnections between image and truth have a way of catching up to you. But who knows if this is even true in an environment where image might be everything?"
I asked him if the story was correct in saying 24 semifinalists had been selected.
Instead of answering, he said there hadn't been any final decisions.
"Well, is the Times account accurate?" I insisted. "It's either true or not."
"It's not true or not," he said, coining a realityist's epitaph. "I'm telling you what I'm telling you. The process has been to meet with people all along, and we're in the process of making the decision, and I have nothing to say about the process, because it's ongoing."
Now, I'd be the last person to say reality-TV producers aren't the proper sources for meaningless bullshit on the nature of truth; they are. In this same vein, it was good and proper for Cutler to deny the legitimacy of the concepts of truthfulness and falsity; it's his job to do this.
I'm even sympathetic to the motives behind Cutler's show, despite the bogusness of its "pre-campaign" launch. He said he'll portray the type of presidential politics that will occur when continental drift accelerates and America is transplanted onto Scandinavia. "There will be a diversity of viewpoints that aren't necessarily offered in the mainstream discourse, because of the nature of people [chosen to appear on the show]," Cutler said. "Across the board, whether the issue is war, the environment, big business, terrorism, how we deal with public education, or what our basic rights are, we will stimulate debate that's not being held because of the similarity of viewpoints of the candidates of the major parties."
For this to really happen, Medea Benjamin needs to become a reality-TV star. Sadly, TV realityism isn't about things "really happening," and there's evidence Benjamin's been prematurely axed.
Given our subject -- left-progressive politics -- I propose a boycott. Thankfully, Showtime's parent, Viacom Inc., has enough divisions to offer a little self-denial for everyone.
If you're a fan of violent, sexist, and profane music videos, refrain from watching Black Entertainment Television. If you enjoy paying far more in video late fees than you'd have ever spent on a first-run, big-screen movie, demonstrate support for Benjamin by denying yourself a trip to Blockbuster. Love Letterman? Not if you love Benjamin; CBS is a division of Viacom. And for that matter, you can quit watching MTV, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, VH1, and, obviously, Showtime. Don't watch any movies by Paramount or United International Pictures, either. Nor should you read books published by Simon & Schuster Inc.
In fact, the easiest way to adhere to this boycott, and help the progressive reality-TV cause, might involve giving up TV and other fantasy media altogether for a while. Pay attention to the real world. You might become so unsettled by what you see that you end up trying to change reality. If recent news headlines are any guide, you might just succeed -- really.