On News, Fake News, and Politicians

This is more or less a train of thought inspired by last night’s Daily Show/Colbert Report:

First, something that Colbert was nice enough to make public.  The weight-loss drug Alli, of GlaxoSmithKline, which is meant to prevent the body’s absorption of ingested fats and make them pass through the user’s system and out of the body.  Actual quotes from the website (found via Colbert), under the “treatment effects” page:

“alli™ works by preventing the absorption of some of the fat you eat. The fat passes out of your body, so you may have bowel changes, known as treatment effects. You may get:

  • gas with oily spotting
  • loose stools
  • more frequent stools that may be hard to control”

And:

“You may feel an urgent need to go to the bathroom. Until you have a sense of any treatment effects, it’s probably a smart idea to wear dark pants, and bring a change of clothes with you to work.”

Now, I couldn’t find the ingredient list for this particular drug (I don’t know if that’s standard policy, or if I just didn’t look hard enough) but that sounds somewhat like the side effects of Maltitol, one of the many sugar-substitute substances used in low-carb or diabetic food products on the market.  Maltitol is particularly nasty, however, because it can cause pretty intense gas and/or diarrhea if you eat enough of it (e.g. more than one sugar-free caramel candy, for example).  My dad calls the stuff a great laxative.  But believe me, Maltitol does not feel good for you after you’ve had enough of it – try having a small (1/8) slice of sugar-free pecan-and-maltitol pie and get ready for its unpleasant evacuation.

Anyway, my point is probably a little bit to gross the reader out, but more to suggest that excretion is indeed a good way to drop a few pounds in one sitting – and it’s not just water weight either.  And it seems Alli has somehow hooked into this concept in a big way, with potentially alarming results.  Nothing like weight loss through intense physical and social discomfort!  It’s like exercising, without the effort and the other health benefits (like strengthening the heart).  You don’t look so good while you’re doing it, you don’t feel so good either, you have to change clothes afterwards (apparently), but the short-term and long-term results make you feel good about your bouts of feeling like crap.  Interesting comparison.

The second, and unrelated to the first topic, is something which the Daily Show (and Colbert) covered but not to my satisfaction.  This was the recent announcement of Michael Bloomberg that although he has left the Republican party, he is not currently considering a presidential run in 2008.  Despite this pretty clear announcement (which could admittedly just be a temporary or false statement), however, the media – including CNN, which I was watching when I first heard this – were insistent on their speculations that it was indeed a move toward candidacy.  Whether or not these rumors have been fed by Bloomberg or his office is unclear, but if they are indeed just false rumors the media look pretty stupid on this one.  I’ll paraphrase what I saw on CNN yesterday (I would quote but I can’t remember it verbatim… but they have a print story of it):

CNN:  Mayor Bloomberg…(blah blah) is he running for president?

Bloomberg (press conference):  This is not a move toward a presidential candidacy.  I decided to leave the Republican party.

Media:  Are you considering a presidential run in ’08?

Bloomberg:  Wha-no!  I just said that!  I have other things to do.

Media:  So… 2008?

Bloomberg:  Damn you people!  I’m the mayor of the biggest city in America, that’s what I do!

CNN (back in studio):  Clearly, this press conference is fuelling speculation that Bloomberg will run for president in 2008.

Bloomberg (cut back to p.c. video):  I will not run for president in 2008.

CNN:   Okay now he’s just lying.  He is so running.  Let’s hear from a generic talking head about it.

Talking head:  Well, if you remember in 2004, Obama and Clinton both said that they were going to focus on being senators for their respective states.

CNN:  There!  See!  This is totally a move toward candidacy.  Even though he said he’s not running, and likes being mayor of New York, and has 900-some days left in office.

Me:  (shoots someone)

CNN:  Clearly, Anna’s recent violent outburst indicates her interest in running in 2020, which will be the first presidential election for which she will be of age and therefore eligible to run.

My respect for the media:  (dies a little more)

Anyway, that’s more or less how that went.  The Daily Show focused more on the also laughable tendency to focus on the high-profile “non-candidates” more than the actual candidates at times, but still the juxtaposition of Bloomberg’s statements and CNN’s pretty clear disregard for them was also amusing in itself.  I mean yes, maybe Bloomberg is actually feeling out a presidential run for some point in the future, but even if that ends up being true, it still (in my mind) makes the media look pretty stupid to keep running that clip and then talking at length about how it’s clearly a veiled announcement of his future plans for running.  Wow.

And finally, a brief thought about “likability” in politicians and political candidates.  People talk about someone being “likable” or “not likable” (comparing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama comes to mind, not to mention Bush followers), as though that is a major indicator of competency, authority, knowledge, or sound judgment.  Bringing up the Kennedy-Nixon debates (the first televised debates, and television had a lot to do with the result) is perhaps a bad example, as Kennedy is still revered and Nixon mostly reviled because of subsequent events.  Still, though, the televised debates made clear who was the more “likable” candidate.

And a lot of people talk about candidates in these terms, at least people I know – they “get a bad feeling” about one or see another as “not very personable” or just “like” another one.  Is this a useful category?  And worse, is this an inevitable category?  Even before widespread media coverage – and certainly greatly increased after, if not created by it – is the visibility of the candidates, their foibles or slip-ups or embarrassments or scandals, how they handle every single situation, how they talk at all hours and on all topics, until we get an overload of their personality and not too much about their ability to act politically (unless it’s criticism about, say, their voting record from 5 years ago or their party loyalty).

And as they jump through these hoops for two years (or more, depending on how early they declare their candidacy and the TV debates begin) do we really learn much about them?  Or do we just hear hours and hours of talk about how much people “like” or “dislike” them, as though picking their new roommate or lunch group?  We don’t always “like” our boss or co-workers, but (hopefully) for the most part we should try to respect them, particularly if they show sound judgment, and maybe we should treat political candidates more like professional colleagues than like voting for class president.

But then you (or at least I) get the sinking, depressing feeling that people always have voted this way, or (worse) that people haven’t always voted this way, and that widespread media coverage of trivial occurrences in candidates’ lives or campaigns has indeed influenced the vote completely on personality, not on competency or issues or even the voters’ knowledge of these other factors.  And sometimes I get the sad feeling that whenever we choose a new president, it’s pretty much a crap shoot as to whether or not they will actually be an effective leader of our nation… based partly, of course, on outside factors or events, but also because we still have no idea how to reliably choose someone who will do a good job.  All presidents have been fallible individuals (old scandal sheets, history books, or the many presidential biography books can tell you that) but it seems that even with more information than ever available to voters, we can still pretty easily screw up.  Maybe that happens when the candidate is good at appearing as more than he/she actually is; but maybe it also occurs when we only focus on those people we “like,” would have breakfast with, rather than who we’d trust to be the embodied representative (and yes, presidents do fill that role – checks and balances are still in place but for a great many intents and purposes the president is the face of the nation, to those at home and especially those abroad) of the United States.

That said, of course, one hopes that one can find a leader worthy of respect, if one sets aside likability.  And maybe that’s why politics seems to bother me a lot lately – I don’t mind if I don’t particularly like people like Bush or Cheney, but I sure wish I could find more reason to respect the people in Washington.

I’m okay with not respecting the media though – they don’t seem to respect anyone else anyway.

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