Every four years around this time, American news ceases to cover events of importance and opts to follow the people who may at some point have a hand in shaping events of importance. News stops trying to be informative, if it ever was in the first place, and morphs into a melting pot of regurgitated press releases, inconsequential arguments, and poorly chosen tweets that provide the illusion of interactivity.
It’s all very depressing for serious-minded folk, who lament the shift as if it hadn’t been a fact of political life for the last few decades. Many claim that the news media has lost its way and taken after its younger, developmentally disabled cousin: the sporting press. George Packer’s recent “Comment” for The New Yorker gave a representative take:
But political journalism—unlike war reporting—long ago stopped being about what is true or important. Sometime in the nineteen-eighties, reporters began covering politics like sports and entertainment.
Packer’s larger point, expressed through the prism of the Republican primary, is that as falsehoods and hyperbolic rhetoric become more common, the only thing a sane reporter can do is follow the endless jockeying for position of a campaign and treat that competition as the story itself. In this view, politics is an elaborate parlor game that just happens to have a major impact on the world. The sports parallel is at root about content, not style, in the sense that a political campaign stands as a competition rather than a forum of ideas. But there’s another aspect to the comparison, one more heavily focused on the increasing tabloidization of both sports and political news. Newt Gingrich blasting Mitt Romney for being a Massachusetts liberal is just as exciting as a prima donna wide receiver fighting with his quarterback, because fireworks win eyeballs.
There’s an assumption hidden in this comparison that any sports fan reading The Classical should reject out of hand. While political intrigue undoubtedly has a greater effect on the world than a bunch of uniformly dressed genetic freaks moving a ball into arbitrarily determined scoring zones, it’s nevertheless insulting to suggest that a certain form of journalism requires less rigorous standards than another. Because even if an exciting touchdown at the end of an NFL playoff game means less to the future of this land than a GOP tax plan reign of terror, a football fan still wants to be treated like an adult. Endless debates about the size of LeBron James’s balls upset just as many (if not more) people than dozens of hours of programming on Romney’s ability to sound like a regular guy, and, when divorced from context, neither form of stupidity stands out as particularly more or less offensive than the other. Audiences deserve to be treated like an adult, no matter the topic (unless, of course, they don’t want to be).
Tebowmania turned this dumbing-down into an all-out lobotomy. Last Friday, ESPN featured wall-to-wall Tebow coverage: marginally substantive previews of Saturday’s Broncos/Patriots game and Kobe Bryant’s opinion on Tebow’s skills on morning editions of SportsCenter; barely coherent arguments about anything related to the man on the Skip Bayless-starring First Take; more debates on Around the Horn; somewhat more collegial discussions right after on Pardon the Interruption;the day’s interviews with Tebow on later editions of SportsCenter; an extended bit about LeBron James’s thoughts on Tebow during that night’s Nuggets/Heat game; and a recap of the whole ordeal on that night’s SportsCenter.It didn’t matter that Tebow was only barely relevant to discussions, or that no single athlete could possibly provide that many hours of worthwhile programming, or that the next day’s blowout should really have come as no surprise to anyone responsible for the programming. The network deemed the subject worthy of attention by the network; this imperative preceded any rational reason to bring up the subject. The topic will change this week, next week, and after, but the general approach remains the same: oversaturate the market until the thing exhausts or undoes itself. If the story is of some consequence, up the ante until eardrums burst or time marches on.
The political press pushes that desire for extinction level events to more hyperactive heights. Sports franchises make themselves available to reporters, but the hermetic world of embedded campaign reporting ensures that any event can seem noteworthy. This is not a recent phenomenon, but rather a longstanding state of affairs that goes back at least as far as the events described in Timothy Crouse’s 1973 landmark The Boys on the Bus. It’s become so ingrained that, in a situation straight out of Baudrillard, a Rick Santorum visit to a Pizza Ranch in Iowa can never just be a chance for him to meet a bunch of obese Republican voters. It’s a simulation of his ability to understand the heartland mindset, and the mere fact that he’s present is enough. As long as a camera is there, the angles are clean, and the event is broadcast to enough people, it’s effective. Whether or not he actually comes across well to the people in the restaurant makes no difference; they’ll see Michele Bachmann a few hours later. None of these events qualifies as news: they’re living press releases that get sold as the substance of the day because they serve little challenge to the status quo and require less effort to report. Imagine if every San Francisco Giants beat reporter sold Bruce Bochy’s daily press availability as a notable event.
Sports journalists eventually broadcast and report on the games that people care about, If sports and political news worked the same way, then we could expect political reporters to explain the candidates’ records, or to give some sense of how they might govern based on empirical evidence, not how well each eats three deviled eggs in five minutes. Unfortunately, while that request might seem sane, it misses the entire point of not just campaigns, but politics in general. No one, aside from people who work in politics, legitimately enjoys discussing politics. We engage sports to improve our quality of life as a form of recreation. Politics, though, are about the very real prospects of reform, of righting exactly the kinds of wrongs from which sports provide refuge. The problem with political reporting isn’t confined to the campaign season, because it sees fundamentally little difference between a campaign and holding office. For the public, politics is the diversion, not the tedium of managing a nation.
Consider a recent quote from Esquire political reporter and longtime sportswriter Charles Pierce in a column by Jack Schafer of Reuters.com:
“Sports TV has become the template for political reporting,” Pierce said, comparing the spectacle of Iowa coverage to NFL Countdown.”
This analogy is far too kind to CNN and their ilk. NFL Countdown is a horrible show with little respect for the average fan’s intelligence, but it at least covers a league that consumes a precious weekend day-off. It’s window dressing for the actual games—silly, but harmless if eventually we get to the contests. Political news, even at its best, is structured more along the lines of a hypothetical show that previewed NFL Countdown, or perhaps a preview to that preview. It is (and this might even be a little too generous) something more like March prognostications of which movies are likely to figure heavily in the next Oscar season’s prognostications. The quality or substance of the film, or candidate, is rarely up for discussion in the way that NFL Countdown at least attempts to broach a debate that will soon be played out in actual competition. All that matters is the ability to win and hold power. Power and victory can be end in themselves in sports. In politics, they tell us very little about policy and governance.
Sports coverage can annoy, but it has a baseline—the games every fan cares about—against which we can judge the mountains of bullshit. Political reporting, sadly, has no clear bottom. As long as every decision a politician makes is read as good or bad for future campaigns, or a legislative fight gets packaged as a party squabble instead of debate of ideas, political news will remain divorced from the daily life it’s supposed to clarify. At least ESPN gives us a real broadcast a few times every day. Wolf Blitzer will never die.