The SportsCenter-ization of Political Journalism

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.


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Patrick Hruby is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He has contributed to Sports on Earth,, and Washingtonian magazine, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. He is a former adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

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