The Politics of Reality TV

From Sarah Palin’s Alaska to Marion Barry’s Washington, we’re all in a sad state.

If YouTube existed 20 years ago, there’s little doubt the grainy black-and-white footage of then-Washington Mayor Marion Barry smoking crack instantly would have gone viral, with one hit on the pipe spurring millions of hits on the Internet.

Two decades later, Barry – now a disgraced Washington councilmember – is all over YouTube with a pilot for a Reality TV show, The Washington Post noted, though he’s hardly proven a viral sensation. The three installments making up the pilot barely notched a combined 5,000 views in the first three days after being posted, perhaps a sign of the show’s prospects for a life on television.

You can never tell, though: Marion Barry’s Washington might be light years from “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” but we’re all living in a sad state where politicians’ exploits are somehow considered potential Reality TV fodder.

Former Chicago Gov. Rod Blagojevich, convicted felon and failed contestant on “The Apprentice,” is marking time chatting with Perez Hilton and promoting pistachios on TV as he awaits retrial on corruption charges – and more media opportunities.

Tom Delay, the former House majority leader, did a Texas two-step last year on “Dancing With the Stars” even as he was under indictment for the money laundering charges he ultimately was convicted of last month. He could spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Palin, of course, is in a far different position. She’s a politician on the rise, a potential 2012 GOP presidential candidate – and a Reality TV show success whose homey program is designed for mass appeal (her recent gunning down of a reindeer aside, perhaps).

The Barry show is a mixed bag, but not without some odd appeal of its own. We get to see him sing (not terribly), play golf (terribly) – and conduct blunt conversations with aides and pols over the kickback scheme that led to his censure this year. Some of the action seems staged – a TV news report about his woes conveniently pops up just as he’s discussing them – though there’s a certain poignancy in the loyalty of Barry’s son to his flawed and somewhat self-deluded dad.

What’s amazing, at first blush, is the number of Washington municipal politicians who participate in the show. But then again, a chance to be on TV, in whatever form, outweighs what used to pass for common sense.

On Friday, two days after the posting of Barry’s “Mayor For Life” pilot, we were treated to a reality show of another sort, on C-SPAN2: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 8.5-hour filibuster to protest the tax cut deal struck between President Obama and Republican lawmakers. The New York Times notes that the Independent lawmaker’s speech sparked significant social media activity, and proved a “hit” for the normally sleepy cable outlet. Sanders also is now a modest YouTube star.

Sanders’ “Mr. Smith”-like marathon may turn out to be his defining moment.  No amount of TV Reality nonsense, though, likely will erase the defining moments of say, Blagojevich caught on tape cursing President Obama and images of Barry smoking crack.

Check out excerpts of Barry’s show and Sanders’ speech below – and remember to choose your reality wisely:

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.
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