Mass Media and Presidential Debates: Is Thoughtful Journalism Dead?

Presidential debates are supposed to be about the free exchange of ideas between potential candidates for the Oval Office. News coverage of those debates is supposed to give us a synthesized snapshot of where candidates stand so we can make up our minds on what positions and candidates we support, if any. The 2016 election debates, both Democrat and Republican, have been anything but, and the “news” coverage of both has been more of a spectacle and ratings generator than substantive debate. The past few debates of the year have just gone to show that what is passing as “debate” is really just a smoky curtain of veiled moneyed interests with cable news as its puppeteer. “News”, I fear, isn’t journalism anymore. In this little “essay” I’d like to explore the content and moderation of the last DNC debate of 2015, with a couple allusions to the GOP ones as well, as a case study for how what passes as “news” these days is really more of a reality show than legitimate journalism.

When I tuned in to ABC’s DNC debate at 8PM on Saturday night the first thing I noticed was that I was not watching a debate at all despite it being billed as starting at that time. I was met with a panel of talking heads led by George Stephanopoulos telling me who was winning and losing the race already and predicting who was going to win and lose the debate that night. While this may seem inconsequential to some I find it to be incredibly sly. ABC’s billing of the event said that the debate stated at 8PM which means they considered the punditry as a part of the debate. I think our hyperconnected culture has started to consider the talking heads as a validated form of additional political content. They debate the debates. This worries me. What has “news” become? Where is the line between fact and opinion drawn? Does it even exist anymore?

When I think of coverage of political debates I think of ol’-timey American politics like that of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 (see: Kearnes-Goodwin, Doris Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln). While newspapers were definitely partisan even back then they presented their thoughts on the debates after thoughtful consideration. Think about how long it would have taken a journalists' commentary to reach the masses. Content would have had to be taken home in the journalists' head (probably after a long night's work), written down by hand, digested, synthesized, articulated, printed, and delivered before it ever reached the reader. That space and time between the debates themselves and their coverage gave the candidates’ ideas space to breathe in the journalists’ mind before being presented to the public. The story wasn’t the coverage of the story it was the issues themselves. Today what passes for “news” is really just a bunch of people who are paid really well to have “informed opinions” guess what will happen ahead of it actually happening and then (I will return to this point at the conclusion), as weeks pass, pundit after pundit after pundit overanalyze, speculate, and regurgitate talking points handed down to them by their news corporations’ boards and CEOs literally 24 hours a day seven days a week. Their opinions are pumped into the pipelines of our consciousness so often and with such force with bright loud flashing lights that it passes as fact. After all, repetition creates neural patterns which create familiarity which creates confidence.

I think we have taken for granted that cable news, the blogs, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle have accurate reporting as their primary goal. I would argue that they have mind-bending and advertising revenue as their reason d’être. Don’t believe me? Who stands center stage at the GOP debates? Donald Trump. Now, why would the news media have a man that is as flamboyant, out of touch, and inexperienced as that megalomaniac maniac, who has no chance of being the party’s nominee, center stage? Because he is entertaining. He gets a rise out of the left and right. He, in another words, brings in the ratings. Donald Trump getting people riled up about building walls, banning Muslims, and bombing babies produces a lot of viewers and lots of viewers means lots of money in ad revenue. Whoever can do it quickest, slickest, and with the most panache gets the blockbuster deals. People don’t tune to hear the finer points of conservative ideology challenged.  They, you and me included, want to hear what stupid shit is going to come out of Mr. Toupee’s virile hole so we can get angry and post how racist he is on social media.

"I've got to share this so people know..."

Who wins that exchange? CNN and Donald Trump. Why? Because we talk about it and they make a lot of money when we do their jobs for them.

Now, to content: Turning to last week’s DNC debate, what was the first issue raised right out of the gate? The DNC NPG VAN firewall breach scandal. Before ABC wanted to touch anything substantive they wanted to stoke the fires of controversy. Of all the issues facing the American public and a would-be President, the network first wanted to know if Bernie “want[ed] to apologize to Mrs. Clinton.” Entertainment first; issues second. Why? Ratings. Martin O’ Malley had nothing to do with that particular snafu yet it seemed to be so important to the moderators that had to get to it first. It was sooooo pressing... They even used inflammatory rhetoric to raise the tension, “Were you stealing (emphasis mine)?” Why? Ratings. Ratings bring viewers and viewers bring ad revenue. After all, they’d been recycling that story for 48 hours straight at that point. Why not keep going, right?

Secondly, the order of topics discussed is worth noting as well. For the first hour the topics were as follows: 1) the aforementioned VAN controversy, 2) ISIS & the San Bernandino shootings, 3) gun laws, 4) assault weapon bans, 5) cybersecurity and possible mandatory encryption key backdoors, 6) and the refugee crisis, before 7) another round of ISIS before breaking for commercial. Why is this important? Because it set the tone for the debate. Depending on who you talk to you can find a substantial number of people who think that the mass media and their punditry are slyly lobbying for Hillary Clinton to get the Democratic nod and Hillary, if anything, has a wealth of foreign policy experience as former Secretary of State. (Since I am a staunch Bernie supporter I will not touch that issue for the sake of fairness.) However, I do not think it is a coincidence that ABC chose to prioritize foreign policy over domestic policy a) because they are purposefully pushing the war drum agenda because it increases their viewership and b) because of the timing of the debate. It was scheduled for 8PM EDT on a Saturday night six days before Christmas during an NFL game. I highly doubt it is over the heads of network executives that people 1) go out on a Saturday night, 2) probably aren't going to turn off a pro football game with playoff consequences, and 3) may even be traveling for the holidays. In our ADHD culture you can count on maybe a solid hour of attention. So, if ABC had an hour of your attention what would they want you to focus on? Fear. Why? It’s addictive. Hillary bias aside, adrenaline keeps you coming back for more.

You can call it coincidence and you call call me paranoid but I don’t think that people who get paid millions of dollars a year to bring in ad revenue would leave agenda setting like that to chance. There was purpose behind this order and I think they prioritized foreign policy for the sake of fear, money, and perhaps bias.

Secondly, regarding the foreign policy half of the debate and their fear mongering rhetoric I couldn’t help but notice that one of the moderators, Martha Raddatz, was incredibly hawkish, using phrases like, “Would you shoot down Syrian and Russian planes?” (Why in god's name does she want to start a cold war?); “Would you put troops on the ground?” (twice, seeming to suggest the inevitability of invasion [*wink wink hint hint*]); and “Don’t you think these are decisions you need to make now?! (No, they need to be made with facts, not make believe scenarios you read in a Tom Clancy novel)” She clearly had ulterior motives pushing the candidates, mostly Clinton, toward inflammatory rhetoric. Why? Fear. Fear gets your adrenaline pumping and you get a little high. So you keep watching and they keep getting higher ratings.

If you’re paying attention you're probably starting to see a pattern emerge: the news companies are benefiting financially by making us feel afraid. The GOP can manage to make their constituents afraid solely with their candidates' rhetoric so the networks always win with them. However, when 2/3 of the Democratic contenders (considered to be long shots by the mass media) are campaigning primarily on domestic and economic issues, I don’t think it is a coincidence that foreign policy and fear-mongering took the prime time slot.

Lastly, in this regard I would like to make one more short point on timing and coverage: a full hour was given to foreign policy while all of the domestic economic issues including 1) renewable energy, 2) corporate America’s influence on the political process, 3) reigning in Wall Street, 4) progressive taxes for paid sick leave, 5) race relations, 6) policing, and 7) the heroin epidemic. (All issues that hit far closer to home for most Americans than any foreign policy issue) were only given 45 minutes total including 8) yet another foreign policy question about Libya (mostly directed at Mrs. Clinton) and 9) a (what I thought was an incredibly inappropriate) question about redefining the role of the First Spouse (again mostly directed at Mrs. Clinton as the only female candidate). All of those incredibly pressing issues were only given 45 minutes included two commercial breaks whereas the forgiven policy hour only had be given only one. Oh, did I mention the zero minutes spent on Climate Change, the biggest issue threatening everyone? Again, you can call this coincidence but populism doesn’t create ad revenue; fear does. It keeps you watching.

Personally, I have made it a point to try not to listen to the pundits anymore, but given my level of curiosity at noticing these peculiarities very poignantly this time around with the DNC debate I kept the feed (I was watching online) going for a few extra minutes to see what the talking heads would say post-debate. I knew that every news channel, blog, and social media feed was already blowing up with unthought-out, shallow, dribble commentary but I was curious a) how long it would take for them to begin their annotations and interpretations instead of reporting what actually happened and b) what direction it would take. Were the media really biased toward Hillary? What would their focus be? I timed them and checked.

  • Within fifteen seconds of the debate being over either Stephanopoulos or one of his cohorts said “[This debate] will give Hillary a 25-28 point lead.” Leading much?
  • Within one minute they were back discussing the DNC data breach controversy that had just been resolved by its principle players on stage and had no further value.
  • Thirty seconds after that Stephanopoulos read a tweet that Donald Trump sent him, again importing Trump's sensationalism into even the DNC debate.
  • I was only able to bear literally one more minute because Trump was mentioned three more times and Hillary was praised by yet another DNC “strategist” with no mention of either Sanders or O’ Malley, though they clearly had their best showings yet.

In literally about three minutes the “educated elite” had already told the audience what to think without giving us any time to digest and make up our minds about the nearly two and half hours of policy we had heard considered. Why go so fast? Because they needed to make room to talk about Donald Trump. Why? Ratings. Money. Fuck what they said about your job let's talk about what Donny thinks, right? Donny dances in dollas.

My main thesis here is that these televised debates, both DNC and GOP, have nothing to do with the substantive issues facing our country. In this age of instant communication and education if someone wanted to know where a candidate stood on issues X, Y, and Z they could just go to [politiciansname].com and find a much more detailed explanation devoid of inflammatory moderators and advertising breaks. These debates are about sensationalism and celebrity being legitimized by what we have been duped into calling “news.” Donald Trump has no chance of being the GOP’s nominee yet the news media follows him around in their clown cars because every stupid thing that comes out of his mouth is another BREAKING NEWS graphic to be parsed and parceled by an endless stream of talking heads and “experts”, to be consumed (and regurgitated on social media) by me and you in between commercial breaks for the next week.

The days of slow thoughtful methodical journalism and consideration seem to be convulsing, needing CPR. Cable news and every branch of their reach, whether it be hyper-fast “we-got-here-first on-the-scene reporting from the latest world event, “in-depth analysis” of the characters involved in our nation’s myriad tragedies (which further gives platform for the perpetrators ideology and a reason to commit said atrocities), or even Presidential debates are just another reality show to keep the money machine moving. After all, if they have a 24/7 “news” channel they need 24/7 news, whether news is happening or not. So, what do they do to fill the void? Commentary is now considered news; Predictions are now considered news; Justin Bieber doing some stupid shit that no one should care about is considered news; Giving rich billionaire racists a platform to spread fear is considered news. And the most important part: we buy it every time we tune in.

Even the most skeptical and pessimistic or radical among us still tune in to see what stupid shit Trump is going to say. We still watch Bernie and Hillary exchange ideas even though we know that the corporate interest has bought and paid for her campaign and that Bernie is being stonewalled because of his populist message. We tune in and let the talking heads tell us what to think, what’s possible, and how events will unfold with our passive watching. We have given up making our own decisions for the convenience of having “experts” tell us how things are and should be 24 hours a day seven days a week. It’s not only CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC either. Twitter, the blogosphere, and social media have created at atmosphere where it is more valuable to be quick than thoughtful, inflammatory than wise, and clever than educated.

In my humble opinion we need to slow way the fuck down. Click mute when the talking heads are spewing their word vomit. Turn off the TV when the “experts” are "filling us in." Maybe we should take our time and think instead? Maybe we should do our own research and come to our own conclusions about issues? Then when we listen to candidates who seem to be way out in left field away from us we can follow the money and find out why they're still there. Who's propping them up? Conversely, we can lend our hands to “fringe candidates” who actually represent our interests without being discouraged by their “electability” as defined by the moneyed interests we should be (IMO) fighting against. We don’t need the “news” anymore because the news is dead (with perhaps the exception of well-established print media but I will save that argument for another piece). When a world event happens... give it some time. Give it some space to breathe. Process it before you consume it. Let real journalists dig and do some work to figure out the story instead of grabbing our popcorn and gluing our eyes to the stupid-making machine ten seconds after tragedy strikes.

If our “democracy” (if we can still call it that) is to survive this newly hyperconnected ADHD bright flashy culture of 24/7 “news” we must slow down and purposefully commit ourselves to critical thinking, instead of letting “experts” getting paid millions think and decide for us what’s possible. There are ways to stay informed and up to date but they may not be as instant as turning on the TV. However, if we use the resources at our disposal (the Internet, libraries, established and proven journalism, etc.), then we can vote our conscience and maybe even change the world in the process.

The Matrix has us. We must free our minds. The good news is that all it takes is turning off the noise and committing ourselves to learning. We live in an age where access to education and information is literally at our fingertips. We must simply stop, breathe deeply, and commit ourselves to learning, instead of consuming. The “news” wants us to consume their product; the future needs us to educate ourselves.