By Chris Sick
By the time this sees print, the media will be gearing up for the second Republican presidential primary debate of a mind-boggling 11 already scheduled. Writing now, against an early August deadline, most of the political news I’m reading still is teasing out who “won” the Aug. 6 debate, and expending a lot of energy hoping the loser is Donald Trump.
Trump’s fight with Fox News anchor and debate moderator Megyn Kelly is garnering a lot of attention, but affected his poll numbers, which continue to show a massive lead over his competition. By the time you read this, Trump may have finally gone too far and flamed out. Or he may retain his lead and become the presumptive nominee. Or he may get struck my lightening tomorrow and render all of this moot.
Political predictions are an inherently dumb game. There exists a class of professional pundits who earn a good living being professionally and consistently wrong. This class is best represented by former Clinton advisor turned Fox News talking head Dick Morris, so frequently wrong he even gets it wrong when apologizing for getting it wrong.
As alternately amusing and depressing as Morris might be, he’s emblematic of the problems of the way modern media covers elections. Comparing political coverage to sports is a handy and well-worn analogy that encompasses the failure of media to deliver substantive coverage of policy differences between the parties, but it falls short in understanding the depth of the failure.
Modern political coverage is like hiring Pete Rose to offer commentary on baseball games he’s umpiring. You know he knows what he’s talking about, because he’s played the game himself. But at the same time, you know you can’t really trust him: He’s probably laying down action on the game, while influencing it from the inside.
The interesting upshot of the first GOP debate was not whether Trump will apologize to Kelly for implying that she was on her period. Rather, I was fascinated by the tensions apparent both between wings of the Republican Party and Fox News as a journalistic institution. There have been reports of an internal dispute at Fox between CEO Roger Ailes and News Corp (Fox’s parent company) owner Rupert Murdoch over the issue of how to cover Trump.
Fox News is stuck between those two goals, promoting Trump on opinion shows like Hannity or Fox & Friends; while its serious journalists attack him as debate moderators. Following the debate, the moderators were praised for asking tough questions and not going easy on Republicans, and – the most important – probing candidates’ individual weaknesses to toughen them up for the general election.
In part, that’s simply a function of where we’re at in the race. Primaries exist to winnow out a large pool down to a single candidate who not just best represents the party, but also has the best chance of winning in the general election. The tension between these frequently-opposing needs has produced GOP standard-bearers in the last two elections that left the party base underwhelmed.
The argument goes that Fox’s moderators were tough on the candidates because the mainstream press will be, and tough questioning makes better candidates. It’s a good theory, but it’s worth noting that it relies on journalists to help candidates develop campaign strategies, and turns Fox News into an arm of GOP electioneering, just as Democrats incorporate friendly platforms like MSNBC and The Daily Show into their media strategies.
For my part, this isn’t my first political rodeo. Back in 2012, I had the distinction of “covering” the presidential election for softcore/alt-porn site SuicideGirls. What the experience taught me, more than anything, was the difficulty of offering substantive insight into meaningful policy differences between the candidates. Writing an in-depth analysis of the deep philosophical differences embodied by the policy proposals of the presidential candidates that manages to rise above the turgid is hard work. Writing a thousand words twice a week about how ridiculous Mitt Romney’s attempts to connect with ordinary people are and off-handedly dismissing his VP candidate’s budget proposals as a fantasy is comparatively easy.
Anyone who still is reading this column after half a year might have noticed that I generally try to concern myself more with the form of argument in controversial issues, rather than contents. That is to say, I care a lot less about what people think than I do how they think. Focusing on the latter over the former allows me – hopefully – to find a way to understand and debate people I disagree with, instead of writing them off as stupid and suggesting they go die in a fire.
Most political coverage – and I read more of it than could possibly be described as healthy – is interested in neither. Instead, the lessons of most recent elections are that there’s money to be made in wall-to-wall election coverage that focuses on the strategic game of politics. That is, a metacommentary that treats issues less like important policy debates voters need explained to inform their votes and more about how they’ll play with targeted fractions of the electorate.
And it’s not limited to either “side” of the political spectrum. I focus on Fox, here, because they’re in the news, and because Trump is an easy punchline. But it was CNN that thought the height of political coverage in 2008 was holograms. And the coverage works for them, Fox recorded 24 million viewers for the first debate. And then cut to Frank “Death Panel” Luntz’s focus group.
H.L. Mencken, famed polemical journalist, spun out a lot of witty quotes over the years, including the famous chestnut that “Democracy is the theory that common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” The modern political media has discovered that there’s a hungry audience that doesn’t care about the policy that affects their lives, so much as it cares about politics as sport. And it’ll keep providing that coverage, until the audience stops tuning in.