by Guest Writer Paul W. Rea, Ph.D. 

Early morning of December 20, 2012 is cold and damp as Sandy and I stride toward Times Square. As we turn the corner onto Broadway, night suddenly becomes garish day. Immense all-night billboards tout Dunkin’ Donuts, “Taiwan, the Heart of Asia,” and “NAVY: A Global Force for Good.” Another gaudy sign is selling the Marines, asking “Which Way Would You Run?

Far below, a wraparound announces “Gun Maker Smith and Wesson Enters Tricky Territory,” suggesting that “gun control could be bad for business.” Below all this glitz, a military Recruiting Center dominates the Square. Toys R Us is all lit up, ready for the crowds of shoppers, and devoted fans are lining up outside the ABC studios.

Once we pass through studio security, which includes a sniffer dog, we join the audience for ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Overhead lights are radiating heat, but we have nowhere to hang our coats. My beret with the “Peace Monger” button must go in a pocket. On cue, our job will be to smile, applaud, wave, and go “oooh” and “aaaahh.” It’s a tough assignment, but it’s not every day you appear on national TV.

Who are these TV personalities, anyway? Members of the studio audience whisper great admiration for the show’s stars. But I have to discreetly ask what their names are, pretending they’re right on the tip of my tongue. Lara Spencer, I’m told, is not just the lifestyle anchor for “Good Morning America,” she’s also a correspondent for “Nightline” and “ABC News.”

When the show turns to “fashion for fido,” Lara remarks, apparently without any hint of irony, “it’s so nice to talk about soft fluffy things.” Later I learn that ABC has improved the show’s ratings “by minimizing substance and increasing fluff.”

Co-anchor George Stephanopoulos, a Clinton leftover, has hosted Sunday talk shows. He’s a bright guy, but you’d never know it here. Nevertheless, his salary is eight million a year. All the hosts are very Anglo-American, with no trace of ethnicity beyond George’s Greek-sounding name.

The preening of the stars is constant. As soon as Lara’s off camera, she begins to fidget with her golden locks. Seconds later, aides brush her tresses and fuss with everyone’s makeup, as though anything could have changed in the three minutes since the last commercial.

As the show cuts to a faked “eagle-eats-child-in-park” video, the hosts chatter about how this You Tube fraud had drawn two million viewers in twenty-four hours, “showing that even amateurs can spread their wings.” They also titter over reports of a “man with no clothes” who “went on a rampage in Los Angeles.” This is as close as the show will come to anything of substance.

Beyond the long and frequent commercials, the show devotes most of its on-air time to still more sales promotions. Hosts deliver at least four plugs for “the last few days of internet Xmas shopping when you won’t have to pay for shipping. Plus, you can go to the GMA website for half-price items.”

The show’s “content” also helps consumers overcome any inhibitions about holiday overeating. Plump female models amble down the runway wearing special underwear supposedly reducing visible fat overhang; viewers are told that there’s no need to moderate holiday feasting: they can just buy a Bravo® bra to conceal its consequences. Moments later, the cameras focus on trays heaped with rich foods. A jolly, rotund chef with an Italian accent raves about the pancheta and prosciutto crudo.

To compensate for the show’s dullness, technicians roll the cameras from set to set, from stools to couches to the runway to the table loaded with food. State-of-the-tech but utterly devoid of substance, “Good Morning America” seems to symbolize the vast wasteland of commercial television. The technology marches ever onward, but the mindless consumerism stays the same.

As Sandy and I slip out of the studio, looking at each other in disbelief, the street assaults us with still more messages. A huge military truck now dominates the center of the Square. Officers in crisply-pressed Army fatigues and Navy whites are greeting the tourists.

Amid all the illusion, unreality, and sensory overload, a human touch seems refreshing—even to those who aren’t buying the message.

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Paul W. Rea, PhD, is the author, most recently, of Mounting Evidence: Why We Need a New Investigation into 9/11.