Friday, November 26, 2010

Keep the Lights On @ NJN

Editor's Note: I originally submitted this as a Letter to the Editor to every NJ newspaper I could think of.  As a result, I took a slew of 'confirmation calls' last week and, today, received a call from my in-laws that the first submission finally made it to print in The Trenton Times.  Afterwards I learned that the letter also appeared in the Star Ledger on Thanksgiving Day.   

The one question I kept being asked by every editor that called was, "Do you have any personal connection to NJN."  I chose to answer honestly: "Every taxpaying citizen of New Jersey has a personal connection to NJN that stretches from their wallet to the State House."  It is a fact that without NJN, New Jersey voters will have no connection to their own representatives.  As I argue below, in the spirit of honest and open government (let alone good financial practice) the Governor has the responsibility to ensure that the station's transition to private ownership is a smooth one that does not allow the spotlight on his office to go out.

This New Year could usher in a new era in the relationship between New Jersey voters and their state representatives, one that would be darker and more distant than ever.

If the State moves forward with the Governor’s plan to cut all funding to NJN as of January 1, we will no longer see the happenings of the State House on television. Debates will be held, laws and budgets will be passed behind doors closed to the cameras that were once the lifeline between voters and elected representatives. In the information age, our most vital lifeline to real time information—New Jersey Network—will be cut off.

How can this possibly be in the best interests of New Jersey?

With barely a month to go before 147 workers are added to the already overburdened unemployment rolls of the state, a number of options are being thrown around. It is reported that the Governor favors holding onto the valuable FCC licenses in order to ensure that the state’s 40 year, multi-million dollar investment in NJN be used to produce Jersey-centric programming by a new entity.

Who this entity is, we have yet to find out.

The Governor seems to favor the idea of a possible takeover by WNET, a public television station that receives annual funding from New York State. Follow the money and you have to ask, how Jersey-centric could that relationship possibly be? WNET’s merger with Long Island PBS station WLIW was filled with empty promises of maintaining Long Island-centric programming. If WNET couldn’t even stay faithful to their fellow New Yorkers, what chance would Jersey stand in such a merge?

It is New Jersey money that purchased the licenses, towers, facilities, and equipment, and that helped to produce 40 years of Emmy Award winning programming. Whether by tax dollars or donations, since its inception NJN has been a station of the people, by the people of New Jersey. The Governor isn’t telling us it was a bad investment; we just don’t have the money to continue.

Now, the Governor is right; our state is in tough financial times. But when money is tight, shouldn’t cutting the lines of communication between government and her citizens be at the bottom of the list?

Assembly Speaker Oliver has said that she “will not sleep unless NJN stays on the air as of January,” and neither should her fellow representatives. Allowing NJN to go dark means putting their credibility at stake. Decisions must be made that ensure the survival of NJN as a Jersey-centric media outlet. One that, in the interest of keeping our residents in-jobs and in-state, continues to employ the talented staff that has faithfully brought this state to life over the airwaves.

After all, who will be able to stand guard if the lights go out?

Monday, November 1, 2010

To Care or Not to Care: That is the Question

Originally published at on Friday, October 29, 2010

Is anyone but me amused by the fact that “The Rally to Restore Sanity” is being held on Halloween weekend and “The March to Keep Fear Alive” is the opening act for Mischief Night celebrations—in our political capital, no less?

The irony of timing may be the funniest aspect of this weekend’s clash of pop culture and politics, and even that falls flat after a few laughs. After all, as any politico will tell you, an election is the kind of serious business that brings out Americans’ fear, anger, and rage likened to that of the mythical Arab Street each time an Israeli dares to breathe in the wrong direction. Listening to the conversation on MSNBC’s Morning Joe one can’t help but feel that voting booths are really incense-scented offices lined with leather couches bordered by tissue-laden end tables.

Thank God, then, for the punditry of Jon Stewart and Colbert. Without their spitball satire steering the U.S.S. Apathetic, how would we ever be able to navigate the dark, stormy seas of political emotion?

To be sure, more than one news outlet has commented on the vague blur between politics and humor that has officially been deigned “a rally for the people who’ve been too busy to go to rallies, who actually have lives and families and jobs (or are looking for jobs) — not so much the Silent Majority as the Busy Majority.” True to their postmodern ethic, the folks behind the rally imply their inability to draw on even their own desired demographic: Our audience would come, but they’re just too busy with real life to care. As glib as it may seem, it is more than self-effacing humor; the Rally’s permit application filed in September estimated a crowd of a mere 25,000, despite the 220,000 positive RSVP’s they received up to that point on Facebook.

So, the real question is: Why bother holding a rally if you don’t even think anyone would show up?

The entire event reminds me of a pseudo-prank a friend and I pulled in college. One afternoon we sat in the middle of the Student Center, handing out fliers, encouraging people to protest the fact that we had nothing to protest. About three people stopped to give a chuckle, while most just moved on without even taking notice. What started out as a joke quickly became my own personal reality check; it was as if I put my finger on the pulse of my generation and found myself pressing really, really hard to feel any sign of life.

The summer after that semester my friend and I joined a group of college classmates for a trip to the set of The Daily Show to see our icon, Jon Stewart. Here was a man who, in less than two years, took a fledgling parody program and quickly molded it into a serious attempt at comedic news. Ratings were soaring, especially on college campuses filled with jaded students who thought Stewart, with his sharp wit and “it’s all B.S.” attitude was the real straight-shooter in the news world. This was our chance to sit practically face-to-face with the man who held the world by the cajones. This was big.

After we filed into our seats we were told by some studio lackey that Stewart would take our questions before the show began. Anxious to impress, I formulated a question in my head regarding Arafat, Sharon, and the effects of the then-fresh new Intifada on the peace process. I had one shot to show this guy I was as informed as him, and I was going to do it right. And I did.

“I—make—the—jokes?” Stewart replied with mock-nervousness.

The audience laughed, Stewart proceeded to mock one of my friends for having a strange expression on his face, and then he took another question that was more on the level of what movies he liked to watch on Saturday night than anything related to the growing political nature of the show.

Right then is when I fell out of love with Jon Stewart. It wasn’t because he turned my serious question into an opportunity to garner laughs for himself; he’s a comedian. If people don’t laugh, he doesn’t get paid. It was because he purposely avoided answering a political question off-camera while simultaneously being as political as possible when he was on air.

Later, Stewart would go on to appear on several news shows on the Big Three and cable news—he even felt political enough to openly criticize the banter on CNN’s Crossfire (maybe because the cameras were rolling). But I knew it was all an act, political or not. I’d seen behind the green curtain; the wizard was there to do nothing more than promote himself. As a result, subjects like terror in the Middle East could easily become fodder for humor before the show, but as soon as the cameras were rolling, he could be as serious as necessary about the horrors of 9-11. Jon Stewart doesn’t play to a political agenda, he plays to a crowd.

And, apparently, his managers aren’t so sure the crowd even really gives a damn. Stewart and Colbert initiated this rally to “combat” the popularity of Glenn Beck’s 8-28. Yet, no Internet hack-news agency paid for buses to take Beck and his followers to the 8-28 Rally, nor did Fox News issue a memo to all its employees to go support Beck’s event. Perhaps that’s because what Stewart is pushing isn’t about the bigger picture. This is not the rally that’s going to ask America what they can do for their country; it is the rally that’s going to ask America to take a break. The real problem is that viewers and fans have already been broken by people like Stewart who are willing to sell out principles to parody and use policy to inflate their own persona.

Perhaps that is why the managers of the Rally are anticipating that no one will care enough to show up.

Afterward our Protest to Protest the Fact that We Have Nothing to Protest, I wrote an article for the student arts & entertainment magazine called Passionate Apathy in which I begged the student body to find something—anything to care about. Even then I could see we were a cause-less generation. Today, on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Arianna Huffington was blaming the President for not doing more to organize the nation and motivate Americans to work together. I laughed.

Isn’t she one of the people spending a lot of money on a rally telling Americans not to give a damn?