Sunday morning's guardians of American virtue helpfully prepared a presumably pre-jaded people for the Democratic national convention by asking the questions that burn in the hearts of ordinary Americans. Wasn't it a thrill to hear Cokie Roberts ask John Edwards how he was going to explain his positions on repealing tax cuts for billionaires to the citizens of South Carolina, on keeping Social Security socially secure and not privately privatized, on defending Americans against massacre, on defending the national parks against the subsidized tree killers? Weren't you struck, as I was, by her uncanny grasp of what Americans have on their minds?
There was a time when readers of The New York Times never knew what they were missing. You had to run down to Hotaling's, the out-of-town newsstand in Times Square, to check The Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times, or wait a few days for the Manchester Guardian. Or you subscribed to I.F. Stone's Weekly and relied on him to call your attention to the 23rd paragraph of the Times piece, the one where your eyes had glazed over but Izzy had unearthed some nugget that shattered the story's otherwise anodyne arc.
Americans, thankfully, are not being gunned down in disputes over political correctness. But disputes over who should decide which ideas should circulate where are very much in play. In fact, a new front has opened.
On Oct. 21, the House of Representatives declared incontrovertibly that, "The events and aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, have underscored the need for the nation to strengthen and enhance American knowledge of international relations, world regions and foreign languages." Or to put it in the vernacular, the nation should know more about this vast, inscrutable planet where, amid billions of human beings who have the nerve not to be American, thousands seem to think that they can bring paradise nearer by slaughtering large numbers of Americans.
To hear American television networks talk about documentaries -- well, there's a self-canceling sentence. If they did talk about documentaries, they'd say that they're like bomb threats: they clear the room. Those eye-glazing, ad-killing relics of a stodgier age might be good for awards, but they're bad for thrills and therefore bad for business. It's supposed to be axiomatic that today's twitchy audiences -- at least the folks who aren't yet drawing Social Security checks -- won't sit still long enough to let documentaries set the scene, juxtapose divergent memories, let the story unfold. People want drama, and docs aren't dramatic, right? Pass the remote.