Role Reversal

Why political news is even worse than what you get from sports.
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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.


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Comments

Couple scattered comments. I think this piece has some excellent insights, but they're buried under some false equivalences and a couple arguments that don't go through.

Freeman quite correctly notes one hidden assumption in the "political reporting has become like/as bad as sports reporting" argument: "that a certain form of journalism requires less rigorous standards than another".

That is an assumption. It happens to be true, but it's an assumption. (I don't want to bother rehearsing all the arguments for the truth of this assumption, so I will just throw out one example that comes to mind: the Colorado Avalanche hockey team doesn't allow injured players to talk to the media. Nor does anybody in that media attempt to rock the boat. If the press were covering something important, we would--rightly--expect and demand them to contact those invididuals whose knowledge was most relevant: we would expect and demand them to ignore and circumvent the attempts to control (the release of) information. In the end, Freeman undercuts his own point later: "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" is about as succinct an indictment of the post-game scrum as I've ever read.)

Unfortunately, Freeman then runs aground on his own--untrue--assumptions: (1) "a football fan still wants to be treated like an adult." Best argument against this, besides Every Beer Commercial Ever and All NFL Coverage post-Cosell, is The Classical's own http://theclassical.org/articles/stories-the-nfl-only-tells-its-friends. For that matter, later in this very piece we find "NFL Countdown is a horrible show with little respect for the average fan's intelligence".

(2) "debates...about...LeBron James...upset just as many...people [as] dozens of hours of programming on Romney's ability to sound like a regular guy."

Well, maybe those debates do occupy as many man-hours: that doesn't mean the issues are actually of comparable importance. And when you pile up commitment versus consequence, the arguments on LeBron certainly DO stand out as particularly more offensive--if only because of the incredible nuance, depth, and willingness to disagree with "experts" that sports fans seem to have built in, as opposed to politics fans. (This is an old point of Noam Chomsky's.) Spending your time coming up with insights about the circus is a luxury: and in dark times, it's a pernicious and arguably vile one.

(2a) "Sports journalists...broadcast and report on the games that people care about"

This is, for the record, one paragraph removed from a lengthy cri de coeur about the excesses of ESPN's Tebow coverage. And, absent any discussion of the market forces involved with sports journalism, it's barely a sentence worth considering. If (2a) were true, surely there'd be a lot less Tebow & Notre Dame floating around, and a lot more [insert your hobbyhorse here]. If we learned nothing from the ESPN oral history--and it's likely we came very close to doing just that--it's that these guys don't just have all the fun, they also do a real choice job of ramming stuff down our throats and shaping our tastes. (March Madness, the NFL draft, etc...)

(3) "No one...legitimately enjoys discussing politics."

False.

And it's unfortunte that it's false, b/c it distracts from the deep and abiding truth found just a couple sentences later:
"The problem with political reporting isn’t confined to the campaign season, because it sees fundamentally little difference between a campaign and holding office."

This is exactly right, and worthy of substantial attention and engagement.

Also right, and worthy of substantial attention and engagement, is the core point: sports reporting is reporting on a matter of more or less verifiable fact, whereas political reporting is too often commentary on a putrid melange of press release and substanceless posture/jockeying, a picture of a picture of a picture...

However, the colossal failures of the political press don't excuse the colossal excesses and similar failures of the sports press; nor does "there's a matter of fact" about sports make them more important or better than politics.

(Oh, and there's a trailing quote on the "Boys on the Bus" link that makes it not work.)

I think there's some confusion here as to exactly what I'm trying to say. I think sports journalism is for the most part quite awful β€” the Tebow paragraph hopefully got that across. The primary argument in the piece is a structural one: that ESPN and the like must eventually reckon with the games that drive discussion about sports in the first place. I don't think that they have the balance between bullshit and substance even close to right. But there has to be a modicum of real game analysis in anything they do, or else we're looking at a "ESPN Hollywood" show, and that failed pretty spectacularly. Political news, by comparison, rarely connects with the real-world concerns that bring about the political system in the first place. The post-game scrum and the daily political press avail are similar experiences -- what's different is that the scrum comes after the ultimate event of consequence in that field.

I suppose it's possible to argue that sports has no real-world concerns, but I think they eat up enough man-hours and cultural energy that we can consider them a part of daily American life. That doesn't mean the media coverage is more valuable than political news β€” ideally, it wouldn't even be close. But I don't think that's a reason to expect less of the reporters who cover sports. Your point about the Avalanche is right on: we should demand the same things of those reporters that we want from political journalists. That we don't is definitely related to the value we place on both topics, but we should still want greatness from both. The point of The Classical, in a lot of ways, is to bring the intelligence we want in politics to sports. It's an issue of applying high standards to everything.

Perhaps I am misunderstanding: apologies if so.

Clearly I would be hesitant to disagree with "more better journalism better". Everybody's on board with premises like "beat writers should be diligent & cynical, probably alcoholic, definitely craggy" and "analysts/commentators should disgorge forth words that aren't merely self-promoting, agenda-driven talking points with only the vaguest connection to the actual factual event-like 'facts' putatively under discussion". (Inserts image of Around the Horn.)

Whether we're talking about (talking about) Bill Clinton's rehabilitation or how the knives are coming out with respect to Lance Armstrong, sure: let's insist on high standards.

But it's ludicrous to ask the luminous Ray Ratto to match the standards we should--and mainly don't apply to, oh, say...the New York Times' coverage of the runup to the invasion of Iraq*... And it's still more ludicrous to suggest that the largely unmoored-from-facticity programming deafening & dumbening us all** on ESPN & yr local sports page*** is somehow nobler, closer to "truth" or more important than political coverage just because the score of a game is easier to parse than the outcome of a vote.

The thing I will agree with most strongly, and the insight I'd most like to see developed, is the political media's inability, or perhaps more likely, its unwillingness--to distinguish between campaigning & governing. I do get, however, that The Classical isn't a media affairs concern; it's a sports site. I do not begrudge that focus here.

And it's well worth pointing out that the analogy between sports reporting & political reporting is a pretty thoroughgoing failure, a facile cheapshot that makes less sense the more you think about it.

But the Super Bowl just isn't as important as the death penalty, and it's hard for me to see how it's not a silly waste of time to "demand the same things of [sports] reporters that we want from political journalists." Let's take our games seriously, and let's pay them sober and judicious--and joyful and playful and hilarous--attention; let's not lose track of what's a game and what's not.

* For a more recent example, I might float the standards we're not bothering to apply to the curious fact of the non-interrogated whys behind, say, the majority of the country wanting to invade Iran for some free-floating-anxiety/hating-on-brown-folks reasons nobody seems willing to explicate.

And I should note that until I got sick unto death of it, I did a series of blog posts called "too dumb to play with themselves" about various absurd idiocies of the sporting press. Believe me: I'm on your side.

** /waves to Jim Rome

*** But not, & I do mean this in all sincerity, at The Classical.