Coverage that focuses purely on emotional conflicts and who's winning impoverishes our democracy and obscures the real, important issues at play.
Up went the shirtsleeves. Out came the jabbing index finger. The commander-in-chief meant business. Two years ago, just hours before the House of Representatives narrowly passed a sweeping, historic health-care reform bill -- or, depending on your ideological persuasion, the socialist straw that broke liberty's back, sending America on a one-way slouch to neo-Soviet tyranny -- President Obama stood behind a lectern at George Mason University and made his closing argument: a punchy, ad-libbed plea for change on a matter of literal life and death.
Interspersed, of course, with a mocking, frustrated jab at the hothouse media coverage surrounding the contentious legislation.
"The [cable-television stations] like to talk about the politics of the vote," Obama lamented. "Is this more of an advantage for Democrats or Republicans? What's it going to mean for Obama? Will his presidency be crippled? Or will he be the comeback kid?"
"A lot of reporting in Washington, it's just like SportsCenter. You know, it's considered a sport and who's up and who's down and everybody's keeping score and you got the teams going at it. It's Rock'Em Sock'Em Robots."
Obama knows sports. And SportsCenter. Three times, he's appeared on ESPN's flagship news program to offer his NCAA men's basketball tournament picks. And while Obama's actual athletic prognostication leaves something to be desired -- Kansas in 2010? Really? -- his media meta-critique was spot-on. From cable news to talk radio to the Internet, the distinction between political and sports news isn't just blurred. It's non-existent. Reuters columnist Jack Shafer recently wrote as much:
The jobs of political reporters and sports writers are almost identical: Determine who is ahead and who is behind; get inside the heads of the participants; decode the relevant strategies and tactics; and find a way to convert reader interest into sustainable enthusiasm. Then, maintain reader enthusiasm for the months and months of caucuses or preseason games, primaries or regular season games, conventions or playoffs, and the general election or Super Bowl....
Shafer also spoke with Esquire political correspondent Charles P. Pierce, a longtime sports writer, who put things more bluntly:
"Sports TV has become the template for political reporting," Pierce said, comparing the spectacle of Iowa coverage to NFL Countdown ...
Both men are correct. Turn on ESPN. There are score tickers and headline crawls, slick graphics and constant teases for upcoming stories, everything creating a sense of urgent immediacy. Now switch to Fox News. Visually speaking, it's the same eyeball-grabbing formula. (Well, replace scores with stock prices, and garrulous sportscaster Chris Berman with a frosted blonde news babe). This is the SportsCenter-ization of the news, in which coverage of Washington -- and the world, really -- apes a glossy entertainment product dedicated to spectacular touchdowns, gee-whiz statistics, prefabricated drama, insta-debates waged by a nattering, revolving-door athletic punditocracy and the very latest updates on Brett Favre's various bodily appendages.
Guess what? This is a problem. A big one, in fact. At least for anyone concerned about American political discourse rising above the level of: (a) Two pundits yelling talking points past each other
(b) Plastic robots punching each other in the head. (Admittedly, B is preferable to A).
First and foremost, sports-style coverage oversimplifies politics, reducing complex issues to either/or propositions. Binary thinking is fine for the make-believe realm of athletics, where matters are dramatic by design: defined conflict, clear-cut resolution, heroes (your team) and villains (the other guys). Referees and instant replay when necessary.
Politics, on the other hand, is confusing, nuanced and muddled. Today's ally is tomorrow's foe; various interest groups have equally legitimate claims and grievances; democratic legislation is the product of soggy compromise, providing not the best solution but rather the one the greatest number of people hate the least. Outright victories are rare. Desultory ties are the norm.
So what happens when long slog of public policy gets the ESPN treatment? Consider "Obamacare." The pending legislation rarely was covered as a touchy balancing act between the competing self-interests of doctors, insurance companies, drug makers, hospitals, the AARP, uninsured citizens and others; in fact, it rarely was covered as a health-care issue at all. Rather, it was given a snappy, inaccurate nickname and framed as a political fight, as apocalyptic and over-the-top as a college football bowl game: You are watching live! Democrats versus Republicans, Obama against the Tea Party, two men enter, one man leaves, the fate of American freedom and your sick grandmother on the line!
Who ya got?
Speaking of conflict, you might assume the frothiest tête-à-têtes on sports television involve, say, the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers going at each other on the court. Guess again. The most heated debates involve network analysts incessantly arguing about the Lakers and Celtics. (And the BCS, and Tim Tebow, and who's worthy of MVP honors ... ) The most influential journalism program of the last decade is ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption," which pits former sportswriters Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon against each other in a series of timed, rapid-fire debates on the news items of the day.
Have a take. Defend it vociferously. Attack anyone who disagrees. Declare victory. It's talk radio's bombastic solo acts replaced by ping-pong dialogue, CNN's old "Crossfire" after a six-pack of Four Loko.
"PTI" makes for addictive, irresistible viewing. The show's formula has been widely emulated. This works fine for sports, where, ultimately, the verbal sparring and subsequent rush to ephemeral judgment involves overgrown men in numbered pajamas chasing balls and waving sticks. But politics and policy are another matter. By focusing on the act of shouting -- specifically, on who wins by shouting the loudest -- the news fails to focus on what's actually being said, or ask the two questions that matter most.
Does this make sense? Is it true?
The political press did a bang-up job covering the political debate over going to war in Iraq. They whiffed badly on the nuts-and-bolts of the decision, from the non-existence of WMDs to post-invasion military planning. What happens when everyone is shouting and vamping for camera No. 2? Facts get lost amid the din. As does asking the right questions. This matters. In 2010, a poll found that Americans believe that foreign aid accounts for one-quarter of the federal budget. The actual number is about one percent. Question is, who's going to tell the public otherwise? The talking heads having verbal slap-fights about $5 million in federal subsidies for NPR, which barely accounts for a rounding error against $3.5 trillion in spending?
A friendly reminder to anyone waiting for a rational plan to balance our books and reduce the deficit: don't hold your breath unless you have: (a) a swimming pool or (b) gills.
Like NFL pregame show sets teeming with ex-jocks and coaches, political news features a revolving-door coterie of former and future politicians and pollsters, all hawking opinions that are inherently conflicted. Can a football analyst such as Jon Gruden give an honest, informed analysis of a team he may be hired to coach next season? Is Karl Rove really the best and most impartial guy to break down potential Republican presidential nominees? Also akin to SportsCenter, CNN and company are in thrall to technological gimmickry that adds style sans substance -- more touchscreens, anyone? -- and pseudo-democratic feedback via polling and texting that does little to inform and much to flatter viewers' narcissistic tendencies.
Worst of all, ESPN-style political news makes audience amusement its primary goal. The animating questions aren't who gets it right? or even who gets it first? (Please. Those are for starving, low-rated journalists). Instead, the only question that matters is what can keep our hummingbird audience from fluttering away to the Kardashian sisters and Huffington Post photo galleries? As a business model, this makes sense: news-as-entertainment-product competes not simply against itself -- MSNBC versus CNN -- but also against every other cable network, every other website, the same way sports programming does. As a way of producing a responsible self-governing citizenry, however, it's a disaster.
Drawing on Marshall McLuhan, cultural critic Neil Postman once argued that "Sesame Street" hampered education by conditioning children to view learning as fun, easy and passive -- never mind that serious learning is often tedious, hard, and grueling. The SportsCenter-ization of news works the same way, teaching us that elections are Lakers-Celtics, health care is the BCS, emotional highlights (like the fight over Planned Parenthood) trump actual games (like the entire contents of federal budget) and that while it's both patriotic and essential to have passionate opinions, the dull grind of making said opinions informed is unnecessary.
Small wonder Obama was frustrated. Small wonder politicians of every political persuasion who appeal to logic, reason, and facts end up equally frustrated.
In the same speech, Obama noted -- with a dollop of sarcasm -- that it would have been nice for the political press to have examined the substance of health-care reform. In essence, he was chiding the media for not doing its job. Thing is, he was mistaken. By eschewing wonky policy details for death panels and angry protestors, the press was doing its job. Namely, giving us exactly what we want.
Never forget: the "E" in ESPN stands for "entertainment."
When the Super Bowl ends, we move on with our lives. When the 2012 presidential campaign ends, we'll likely do the same -- rolling up our collective shirtsleeves, meaning business, not having the foggiest idea of how to solve our most pressing national problems, thrilled and diverted nonetheless. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail; when all news is SportsCenter, everything is just a game.