Yesterday, as I was running around Helena doing various errands, I turned on ESPN Radio three times: once each in the morning, afternoon, and evening. Each time, the host was talking about the same big story: an interview LeBron James’s former GM David Griffin gave about the experience of working with him, LeBron’s response (with a full deconstruction of the number of flame emojis he used), and Griffin’s subsequent effort to walk back his remarks.
For someone who occasionally listens to national pundits talk about politics, it was eerily familiar. The hosts, in trying to make an absurd impersonal interaction fill hours, spent the fifteen total minutes I could bear listening talking about the “optics” of the spat and speculating about who “won” and “lost.”
Who “dissed” whom was far more important to the ESPN hosts than just telling me the damn score of the Padres game or putting on someone who could offer some insider analysis about how the trade deadline moves would affect the pennant race.
It was such familiar ground that I expected Anderson Cooper to come on with a panel of 12 to discuss the story.
Following the two nights of the Democratic Presidential debates, most of the national coverage and punditry was not focused on Jay Inslee’s call for swift, decisive action on climate change, Steve Bullock’s position on our nuclear first-strike policy, nor even the important differences between the Democrats on healthcare reform. Instead, the coverage was focused on “winners and losers,” verbal missteps, and the optics of Kamala Harris’s exchange with Joe Biden and Tulsi Gabbard.
Over two nights, the CNN moderators, Jake Tapper most of all, used the evening not as an opportunity to uncover important policy differences or even to determine which candidate had a clearer, more effective vision for the country, but to ask divisive questions about wedge issues that don’t matter to Americans. I lost track of how many times Tapper tried to get one of the candidates to specifically call out another candidate rather than ask for more depth on a policy point that will actually make a difference in the lives of Americans.
What Tapper wanted was a diss moment, the kind of thing that generates viral videos and does nothing to inform us about who should become the next President. And his questions–along with the debates themselves and the sports talk coverage that followed–are undermining our ability to choose the best candidate.
I read yesterday that at this point in their campaigns in 1975 and 1991, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were both polling at under 5%, but the mess the DNC has created with its early debates and their absurd rules for entry is likely to drive candidates out of the race before they’ve had a chance to get started, not because voters have rejected their views, but because the Super Bowl-style hype and talk radio-style analysis of them are creating narratives the candidates will be hard-pressed to overcome.
What will it matter if Steve Bullock present a compelling plan for national agriculture policy or Julián Castro transforms his compassionate vision for immigration reform into politically-viable policy if the pundit class decides they are out of the race before it’s even begun?
All of this, of course, plays into the reality star President’s hands. While the cable news talking heads and the Beltway/NYC pundits who drive national discussion increasingly spend their time on optics, the real news about the disaster of the Trump Presidency is left behind.
We should be far less concerned, for instance, about whether a candidate misspoke once about nuclear proliferation in a three hour debate than the fact that President Trump is recklessly, needlessly, and dishonestly inserting himself in the dispute between the two nuclear powers most likely to go to war, but the talking heads on CNN certainly couldn’t fill five minutes on that topic.
Whether someone “looks presidential,” though? That’s their wheelhouse, not only because it doesn’t require any actual thought, but because if everything goes perfectly, one of the talking heads will say something that will kick off another round of nontroversy.
Every four years, the candidates running for President try to make us believe that this is “the most important election” of our lifetimes. It’s usually typical political hyperbole, but with a mentally unstable President who can’t read a one-page briefing in the Oval Office firing off divisive rhetoric at home and incomprehensible, reckless foreign policy abroad, the candidates might just be right this time.
And we need national political coverage that reflects just how serious this election is or there won’t be any “winners,” least of all our democracy.