When Joe Biden and Paul Ryan leave the stage in Kentucky tonight following their vice presidential debate, do yourself a favor: turn off the TV. The singular element that makes such events so unique – the utter unpredictability of what will happen for those 90 short minutes – evaporates the moment the channel switches from the debate floor to the spin rooms.
There is virtually nothing as tired and repetitive as television debate coverage. I know this because I’ve seen plenty of it. This past Republican primary season, I watched over half the debates from my living room in Paris, where I was studying at the time. The debates began at 2 AM and lasted until 4.
But while it would be difficult to top the GOP primary debates in sheer unpredictability (or entertainment value), the opposite is true of the TV analysis preceding and following it. Television news is often accused of exhibiting right- or left-wing ideologies (usually by viewers of the opposite persuasion), but its fatal flaw is actually its bloodlust for scandal and melodrama. Daily Show host Jon Stewart ably captured this truth in an interview with FOX News’ Chris Wallace last year, when he said of FOX’s competitors: “Their bias is towards sensationalism and laziness. I wouldn’t say it’s towards a liberal agenda. It’s light fluff.”
Stewart’s insight has only grown more relevant this year, during the most rapidly dissected presidential campaign in history. No longer cowed by spectacular reporting errors incurred in the mad animal rush to break the latest news, the major television networks have now aimed their sights squarely at “in-depth analysis” and appear similarly determined to destroy its last shreds of dignity as well.
Balancing the need to be the first to break a story with the ethical requirement to get the facts straight is not a new dilemma. But the speed with which this perpetual struggle has been jolted off-balance and has spread to other facets of news operations (such as analysis) suggests the opening of an entirely new chapter in the way we interact with our news providers.
It is, in fact, the democratization of news provision itself that has so quickly upended the traditional caution of the establishment media and replaced it with the wild-eyed feeding frenzy that predominates today. All the way back in 2000, when CNN prematurely called Florida for then-Governor George W. Bush and was subsequently forced to revise its status to “too close to call,” one could barely distinguish the amassing wave of media upheaval on the distant horizon.
Today, it is no longer simply breaking news that has fallen victim to the need for speed, but analysis as well. And the rise of social media has further nudged the traditional media players on an ever more reckless trajectory. We were once a nation spoken to as adults by the likes of Walter Cronkite and Edward Murrow, whose painstaking research informed their news coverage and cemented their legacies as legendary newscasters. Today we have pivoted to an “infotainment”-based model, replete with election-night holograms and real-time “voter-sentiment charts” during presidential debates. Out-of-context sound bites have graduated from cottage industry to business model in under a decade, while careful dissection of policy differences has been relegated to public radio.
In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman invoked a keen observation: “We do not measure a culture by its output of undisguised trivialities but by what it claims as significant. Therein is our problem, for television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations.”
Last week, when I turned off my live Internet stream of the first presidential debate, I found myself perplexed at President Barack Obama’s seemingly lackluster performance against his unusually aggressive and moderate challenger, Mitt Romney. But it turned out I was very wrong. Obama had not been passive: he had forfeited the election. Romney had not simply looked presidential: he had dominated all facets of the debate. As the hours passed, such a collective conventional wisdom was formed, scooping up fence-riders’ previously ambivalent evaluations in its wake and transforming them instantaneously into sensationalists: Obama had already lost. Meanwhile, in America’s own collective intellectual race to the bottom, so have we. / photo by Dennis Skley
Jay Pinho is a dual-degree master’s student in international affairs at Sciences Po in Paris and Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in New York. He blogs at The First Casualty (www.jaypinho.com). Follow him on Twitter: @jaypinho.
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