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Politics on the Stairmaster?

tom_honig_sA workout gym is one of those “third places” that sociologists talk about—not work, not home, a kind of familiar refuge from daily realities. But it’s different from, say, a favorite coffee shop or bar— mostly because you perspire a lot and, when the workout’s over, you get naked and shower in front of strangers.

It also differs from the neighborhood tavern in that discussion is not the main activity. It’s a refuge from all that talking that we have to do in other gathering spots.

Especially politics. Nothing is worse than listening to a political harangue while gasping for air on the Stairmaster.  Just put in your ear buds, stare straight ahead and you’re blessedly in your own world.

Ah, but Fox News just might change that. With Fox News attacks on the administration ramping up, and administration counterpunches on the increase as well, what happens when Fox News intrudes on the sweaty world of the gym?

It finally happened the other day. Voices were raised above the level of the Otis Redding song on my iPod. The argument? One guy on the elliptical machine wanted CNN and another on an exercise bike wanted Fox News. The CNN guy won out—not because this is Santa Cruz and we watch Fox News at our own peril. Rather, the decision had already been made years ago when flat screen televisions were first installed and this particular screen had been designated the CNN tube.

This little spat was the first political dispute that made it to 90 decibels—at least in any gym I’ve been in. I, myself, have been involved in discussions over what game to have on the television— A’s or Giants (Giants), Stanford or Cal (Stanford) or even basketball or golf (watching golf on TV is like watching paint dry.) But that’s different.

Some say that our society is breaking off into pieces. People seem to want to surround themselves with messages they’re comfortable with. We’re getting our own television stations, reading our own publications, even going to our own schools. The days of people getting roughly the same information from large newspapers and the three big network news programs is long gone.

Imagine, a couple generations back, an argument breaking out over whether Walter Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley should be on.

The bigger issue, of course, is the role that Fox News is playing in our national dialogue. Rating services say that Fox has increased its viewership significantly since President Obama was elected. And those ratings will shoot up even more thanks to the administration’s decision to fight back against the network. On a recent Sunday morning, President Obama went on every talk show except the one on Fox, a deliberate snub that further contributed to debate.

White House Communications Director Anita Dunn went so far as to describe Fox as “a wing of the Republican party.” And adviser David Axelrod and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel carried on the argument further on the next round of Sunday talk shows.


During the Bush years, MSNBC pulled close to Fox News in its ratings, but now, despite the outrage expressed at Fox—the lefty talk shows on MSNBC have dropped about 7 percent in the ratings since Obama was sworn in.

I’m flummoxed by the whole debate. Admittedly, while at the gym I prefer Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin to any political discussion. Sometimes, though, in the privacy of my own home, I’ll switch back and forth from Fox to MSNBC. They both tire me out quickly.

For all their differences, the talk shows employ the same strategy. It goes something like this: “They (political opponents) have a secret strategy to trick you into believing their evil plot. But we’re here to tell you what they’re really up to.”

All this “us versus them” talk can be amusing. The talk-show hosts that do it are spectacularly good at their presentation, and it makes for good shows. Unfortunately, they’re breeding significant nastiness into our public debate. You can see it in online comments; you can hear it on radio talk shows and in letters to the editor. Even worse, you can see it in the halls of the Capitol in Washington—and worse still, at the Capitol in Sacramento. California’s Republicans and Democrats hardly speak, and you can see the result in a broken-down government that just might grind to a halt in the coming months.

The problem is worse than just an argument at the gym. But that’s how far-reaching it has become.

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