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.