'08 election won't end eternal political combat

Whatever the election’s outcome, millions of Americans will wake up Nov. 5 breathing a sigh of relief that the campaign is finally over.

Only they’ll be wrong.

We now live in an age of the endless election, the perpetual campaign — one fed by media outlets on all sides, whose success in the run-up to the 2008 vote has only whetted their collective appetite to keep the good times (and the attendant vitriol) rolling.

This idea of politics as eternal combat — with elections merely serving as exclamation points — isn’t exactly new. Back in 2001, shortly before Bill Clinton left office, I interviewed Rush Limbaugh about the prospect of losing his favorite punching bag and whether his nationally syndicated radio franchise could survive — or at least thrive quite so lavishly — with a fellow Republican in the White House.

“Liberals are always my target,” he said. “The notion I’m going to have nothing to say because Clinton is gone is ridiculous. I’ve always said it doesn’t matter who wins elections.”

Since then, Limbaugh’s brand of in-your-face, opinion-based broadcasting has spread, prospered and taken root. Barack Obama recognized as much, telling the New York Times, “There is an entire industry now, an entire apparatus, designed to perpetuate this cultural schism, and it’s powerful.”

Profitable, too. Conservative granddaddy Limbaugh re-signed to extend his radio pact eight additional years for a staggering $400 million. Sean Hannity re-upped for $100 million on radio, plus a separate multimillion-dollar deal with Fox News, where he has practically transformed GOP VP nominee Sarah Palin into his co-host as the campaign wanes.

Bill O’Reilly also agreed to endure further slings and arrows from enemies, real and imagined, to stay at Fox for a reported $10 million-plus annually. Finally, CNN Headline News’ Glenn Beck will jump to Fox in 2009, the cherry on top of his five-year, $50 million radio contract.

To paraphrase an old adage, the wages of spin are clearly rising. Just imagine how well conservatives would be doing if Nielsen wasn’t suspected of “big-time cheating” to deflate their ratings, as O’Reilly has suggested.

Assuming the voices of Limbaugh and Hannity, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow have become preferred weapons of distraction, media companies are the Halliburtons of this conflict, handsomely capitalizing upon the arms race. Frequent laments about the campaign’s duration from these quadrants thus amount to crocodile tears of the first order.

The cable networks have reveled in their bounty from this electoral roller-coaster, gleefully covering every bump as if they were ESPN building toward the Super Bowl — down to MSNBC’s outdoor set, with raucous fans waving signs. In the process, they’ve gainfully employed armies of analysts and occupied so many political “strategists” with vague credentials that “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart introduced a recent identify-the-pundit feature titled, “Who the F@#k Is That?”

Nobody should expect ratings for Fox News, MSNBC and CNN to remain as airborne as they’ve been in the campaign’s closing weeks. A degree of fatigue — especially among more casual observers sucked into the race — is sure to follow.

Yet having tasted blood, to quote a tune from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” programming execs will surely want more. Besides, in today’s fragmented world “The O’Reilly Factor” leads the barking cable pack by attracting 3 million to 4 million viewers — just over 1% of the U.S. population — so playing to a small but agitated base is a highly viable option.

Cable will doubtless gravitate back to its depressingly trivial pursuits, obsessing over missing kids and pretty young women, celebrity scandals, and parsing the cultural significance of “American Idol.” Hey, got to at least try reeling in those younger demos somehow, which usually means resembling “Extra” more than “60 Minutes.”

Still, the Limbaughs and Hannitys won’t pause to inhale before advancing to the next outrage, the next internal enemy to be harangued into submission. This is war, after all, albeit in the Orwellian sense.

Of course, that “Rocky Horror” song goes on to say “I wanna be dirty,” and there is an unsavory streak to all this. With big bucks at stake, though, saner voices in cable and radio will be advised to take a shower, pop a few aspirin, and let the beat pound on.

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