Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer made a surprise appearance at the Emmys last night, yukking it up with a joke about crowd sizes. It was a nod to one of his first appearances behind the White House podium, where he insisted, contrary to all evidence, that President Trump had drawn “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.”
The Emmys appearance was just the latest stop on Spicer's post-White House rehabilitation tour, which has also included an appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and a plum appointment to Harvard's Institute of Politics as a visiting fellow. Many observers are appalled at the “normalization” of a political operative who repeatedly spun outrageous falsehoods from the White House podium.
Spicer's winking Emmy appearance suggested he wasn't just spreading falsehoods about crowd sizes and other topics, but that he knew full well they were false at the time he spread them — a practice more commonly known as “lying.”
London School of Economics fellow Brian Klaas summed it up as succinctly as anyone: “The treatment of Spicer is another breakdown of political norms,” he wrote on Twitter. “If we just joke about and reward people who lie in government, more will.”
But the issues at stake here are bigger than Sean Spicer, and bigger even than the normalization of behavior that just a few years ago fell way outside of norms.
Spicer's Emmys appearance also underscored how, for many Americans, politics has become simply another form of entertainment. It's a drama that plays out primarily on television with a rotating cast of colorful characters. As with any well-made drama, we hold strong opinions about the players and care deeply about the outcome. But many viewers appear to believe that what transpires at the White House podium has no more impact on their real-world lives than what happens on “House of Cards.”
People who study media and politics have been sounding the alarm on this for decades. More than 30 years ago, Neil Postman of New York University warned that politics and other “serious” topics had been “transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business,” a result of the rising dominance of television “devoted entirely to supplying its audience with entertainment.”
As Postman wrote in his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death”:
Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure. That is why even on news shows which provide us daily with fragments of tragedy and barbarism, we are urged by the newscasters to 'join them tomorrow' ...
We accept the newscasters' invitation because we know that the 'news' is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun, so to say. Everything about a news show tells us this — the good looks and amiability of the cast, their pleasant banter, the exciting music that opens and closes the show, the vivid film footage, the attractive commercials — all these and more suggest that what we have just seen is no cause for weeping. A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis.
Postman passed away in 2003, but earlier this year his son Andrew Postman wrote for the Guardian that his father had essentially predicted the rise of Trump, who has been called the nation's “first reality TV president” — think of the staff drama, the cliffhangers, the social media feuds, the obsessions with looks and ratings.
Trump didn't invent all of this, of course — our politics have been headed in this direction for decades, since at least the first televised presidential debates between JFK and Richard Nixon. As Ronald Reagan noted six years later, “politics is just like show business.”
Today that's more true than ever. For a majority of Americans, television remains the predominant source of news. Social media, blurring the lines between real news, fake news and entertainment, is becoming a chief information source as well. The democratizing effect of Facebook's news feed means that hard-hitting investigative journalism is put on equal footing with celebrity gossip and doomsday prophecies.
“Many of us have been convinced that we are all participants in this reality show,” said Karen Tongson, a pop culture expert at the University of Southern California. “The lightness of that experience makes it easy to treat these political players as actors or personalities.”
If a typical American ran into Kevin Spacey on the street, for instance, she wouldn't call the police because Frank Underwood murdered Zoe Barnes in Season 2 of “House of Cards.” We understand that Spacey was playing a role, and as TV-watchers we love our villains just as much as our heroes.
Similarly, when Spicer showed up in the Emmys' lobby after the show he wasn't shunned for purveying falsehoods — he was mobbed with smiling fans. He wasn't Sean Spicer, former White House press secretary — just the guy who played him on TV.
“We're totally bamboozled,” Tongson said. “We think everybody's putting on a show. And we forget the show actually has real consequences.”