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.