- The Washington Times - Monday, December 4, 2000

Only one thing could compete with the Florida recount and that’s another drama for television: the re-arrest of actor Robert Downey, Jr.

The talented Mr. Downey was/is the romantic interest of Ally McBeal in the popular Fox television tale. He was sprung from prison with lots of fanfare. He was “clean” at last. Then he was busted again. It’s hard not to feel for a guy whose awful father gave him his first “joint” when he was six.

He saved the “Ally McBeal” show from silliness with the sheer weight of his masculine magnetism. Now he’ll be at the mercy of prisoners, again; real-life toughs, not characters in a movie and they’re likely to make a mess of him again. Last time he was in prison he was cut up in a knife fight.

Reading and watching the Downey news, I found myself getting almost as agitated over his arrest as over the arrested election. Television does that. By coming into our living rooms, it’s a great emotional equalizer. It makes entertainment seem as important sometimes more important as our democracy. It personalizes politics and all other kinds of performances, making moral equivalents of subjects both light and heavyweight.

His fans want Robert Downey, Jr. to continue to be a character on “Ally McBeal” no matter that he broke the law. We hate the anonymous caller who ratted him out and the cops were meanies to arrest him just because he had five grams of cocaine hidden in the bottom of a Kleenex box. He’s a brilliant actor (cute, too) and he deserves a break today. Ask any woman.

The other long-running television drama came back to mind when NBC refused to break in with George W.’s speech when he won certification of his votes in Florida. Political bias, we’re told, was not behind the NBC decision. Would NBC have cut in with Al Gore’s victory decision? The explanation, which has the ring of terrible truth, was that the decision was based on marketing and entertainment values. The network didn’t want to break into the movie “Titanic” and disturb its plot.

A senior NBC news source told the Drudge Report that the order came from the network president: ” ‘Titanic’ cost a pretty penny. The feeling was that carrying Bush would distract from the impact of the movie.” He did not say that “Titanic” might distract from the impact of disclosing the identity of the likely next president. Television has priorities, after all.

Television can be a wonderful tool in a democracy, making news accessible to large numbers of people. But it runs the danger of trivializing democracy, too.

George W. was not acting a part in a fictional drama. This was not an episode from “West Wing.”

“NBC blew it,” acknowledged a senior executive of the network. But we’re all in danger of “blowing it” if we continue to allow our national life to be reduced to entertainment. Television is hazardous for our political health because it has the extraordinary power to blur the ability to make important moral distinctions. Television gives equal weight to unequal facts.

Reporters and correspondents fell all over David Boies when he arrived as Al Gore’s lead lawyer with the fanfare of a Hollywood star and he acted his part well. He was the real equivalent of Robert Downey, Jr. But like the actor, he made one of the biggest “mistakes” in his career. He persuaded the Florida Supreme Court that dimple ballots had been counted in an Illinois election, and this should make them kosher in Florida. But the affidavit he submitted to substantiate that precedent was a fraud and a hoax. Illinois had actually done the opposite. Illinois had nixed dimples.

But once the Chicago Tribune exposed the fraud, did the reporters ask Mr. Boise to explain himself? No, despite the major error, he got a pass. He was a famous star.

Plato kept the poets and creative writers out of his ideal republic because their work was to create lies, imaginative lies to be sure, but lies nevertheless. With television we have entered territory never dreamed of by Plato. Not only can we no longer tell the difference between truth and lies, but our lies are lies told to entertain us.

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