The reason we have a bad reality TV show actor as president is because the “news” media has turned political reporting into a reality TV game show, ostensibly for ratings.
You may recall that I mocked the media for this in 2016 with a series of posts about “Survivor – GOP Presidential Primary.” Now the media is repeating the error of its ways with the Democratic presidential primary.
The godfather of broadcast journalism, Edward R. Murrow, stunned the media establishment in a speech delivered 60 years ago today. His speech to the Radio Television News Directors Association in 1958 blasted media executives for turning broadcast news into “an incompatible combination of show business, advertising and news.”
He said the public interest could not be served when news was merely “a commodity” to sell to advertisers. Real journalism, he pointed out, was the loser in this commodification.
His wise insights were true then and even more so today.
The speech has been known through the years as Murrow’s “Wires and lights in a box” speech.
TV critic Hank Stuever writes at the Washington Post, Can we get past the idea that politics is a reality show? Not if CNN has anything to do with it.
Lately there’s a strange caution in the air about the intellectual pitfalls of comparing American politics to the performing arts — or worse, to showbiz. Be careful what you say about optics. Watch your words on the subject of appearance and presence; be wary of identifying playfully fictional metaphors amid such serious national and global crises. Above all, stop comparing the gathering mess of the 2020 presidential campaign season to television, particularly to (insert moralistic scowl here) reality TV.
Funny, I felt that way all through the 2016 election that gave us President Trump: the glee of defining his rise as a reality show with a profane breakout star landed us right in the middle of the worst reality show ever made. Such comparisons portray the reality-TV genre in broadly demeaning strokes. It’s a characterization ginned up by the kind of people who never watch TV, except cable news.
So can we possibly get past the idea that politics is a reality show?
Fat chance. Having subjected us to two nights of garishly adorned, overproduced, conflict-obsessed live “debates” among a field of 20 Democratic hopefuls (its own delusional gridlock of egos), CNN and the Democratic National Committee summoned the worst aspects of some of TV’s most popular genres and visual tropes.
The overall tone, of course, was cable-news alarmism, but the debates also resembled those celebrity-packed, prime-time game shows that litter the schedule all summer. One also got wafts of the blaring bombast of professional football broadcasts, and, yes, the stage-managed awkwardness of the lesser styles of reality TV.
“We are playing right into Republican hands,” one of the candidates, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said during Wednesday night’s debate, in which CNN’s tenor of questioning seemed determined to portray a gamut of Democratic policy and beliefs as chronic afflictions rather than workable ideas. Candidate Andrew Yang, in his closing remarks, also went meta in the moment, pointing out the absurdity of the format, the game itself, where more people will notice his lack of a necktie than his platform.
YANG: You know what the talking heads couldn’t stop talking about after the last debate? It’s not the fact that I’m somehow number four on the stage in national polling. It was the fact that I wasn’t wearing a tie. Instead of talking about automation and our future, including the fact that we automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs, hundreds of thousands right here in Michigan, we’re up here with makeup on our faces and our rehearsed attack lines, playing roles in this reality TV show. It’s one reason why we elected a reality TV star as our president.
And while the field was necessarily prepared to spar with each other (otherwise known as campaigning), CNN’s format facilitated a frenetic game of human darts, with questions designed to goad the jabbing. It was a never-ending two-night competition of lightning rounds, in 30- and 15-second rebuttals to one-minute answers.
Tuesday night’s opening round felt like a series of people being interrupted in mid-sentence, with CNN anchors Jake Tapper, Dana Bash and Don Lemon calling time limits as soon as anyone had anything interesting to say. Wednesday night was only slightly better, but never quite achieved the mood of actual discourse.
Instead, we were watching CNN make television — pieces and bites and clips of which they can repurpose into more programming fodder, days’ worth of pundit banter, befitting the network that overhyped the event for weeks with name-drawings, a countdown clock and relentless reminders to watch.
Even the set for the debate in Detroit’s Fox Theatre, which CNN boasts took 100 people eight days to build (using 25 cameras, 500-plus lights and 40,000 pounds of equipment), seemed like a vulgar example of what we’ve turned our politics into. It overwhelmed the sturdy and ornate authenticity of the palatial 5,000-seat theater, which was constructed in 1928 and built to last. CNN’s frantic impermanence insulted the structure’s beauty.
But that could be any of us these days — lit up like Christmas, in a panic, short of attention, looking for conflict, and then moving on to the next thing. Less than reality TV, this week’s debates put me more in mind of Showtime’s occasionally entertaining but utterly useless political junkie show, “The Circus,” in which three insidery correspultants (my word) just sort of show up wherever “politics” seem to be occurring, so as to add to a heap of speculative analysis and then rush to the next airport.
That’s the state of the 2020 campaign right now — premature, oversupplied, overanxious, and, as several of the Democratic hopefuls noted on both nights, prone to using Republican talking points to eliminate one another as too left or too centrist or just too-too. This is only great TV if you’re the guy in the White House.
If CNN was being run thoughtfully instead of manically, a debate this many months away from the primaries would look less like “American Ninja Warrior” and more like one of those nights when “This American Life” rolls into town and everyone gets a free tote bag. Let’s talk. Let’s explain. Let’s meet some candidates with some stories to tell about how they can win. The candidates could have been seated in wing-backed chairs. The lights could be lower. They could have been allowed to finish their sentences. The debates would run longer (maybe three nights), but more calmly.
* * *
I find it difficult to take CNN’s approach as seriously as CNN does — this many candidates, this early, trying this hard to get to a date on the calendar that (we can only hope) will get here when it gets here.
CNN got most of what it came for (jibber-jabber for future chyrons) but maybe not the ratings it desired. Around 9 million TV viewers tuned in Tuesday night, far fewer than the 15 to 18 million who watched NBC’s two-night debates in June. (CNN says another 2.8 million watched Tuesday’s debate online.) Better than a “Walking Dead” episode, but low enough to get a taunting tweet from the president.
So CNN’s reality TV show Democratic debate on CNN sees a steep ratings drop? That should tell them that viewers are turned off by CNN’s reality TV game show debate format.
New Rule: CNN does not get to host any more debates.
Can we please now get down to the serious business of picking a nominee?
The Democratic National Committee has set stricter criteria for the third set of debates, which will be held on Sept. 12 and Sept. 13 in Houston. If 10 or fewer candidates qualify, the debate will take place on only one night. Only 7 Candidates Have Qualified for the Next Democratic Debate:
Candidates will need to have 130,000 unique donors and register at least 2 percent support in four polls. They have until Aug. 28 to reach those benchmarks.
These criteria could easily halve the field: The first two sets of debates included 20 of the 24 candidates, but a New York Times analysis of polls and donor numbers shows that only 10 to 12 candidates are likely to make the third round.
Seven candidates have already met both qualification thresholds and are guaranteed a spot on stage. They are:
- Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
- Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey
- Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.
- Senator Kamala Harris of California
- Former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas
- Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont
- Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts
Three other candidates are very close: The former housing secretary Julián Castro and the entrepreneur Andrew Yang have surpassed 130,000 donations and each have three of the four qualifying polls they need, while Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota has met the polling threshold and has about 120,000 donors.
Beyond them, only three candidates have even a single qualifying poll to their name: the impeachment activist Tom Steyer (2 polls), Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii (1) and former Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado (1).
A group of senior aides to John Hickenlooper’s presidential campaign urged him to drop his 2020 bid and run for Senate in early July. I agree, taking back the Senate is as critical as taking back the White House, and he should be running for the Senate instead.
We asked all three of their campaigns to provide donor numbers so we could assess where they stood. Ms. Gabbard had just under 114,000 donors as of Wednesday night. A spokesman for Mr. Steyer said he was “on track to collect the required number of donors to make the September debate stage” but did not give a number. Mr. Hickenlooper’s campaign did not respond, but Politico reported a month ago that he had only 13,000 donors.
The other 11 candidates in the race have no qualifying polls to their name, and they all went into this week’s debates seeking a viral moment that would attract new donors and lift them, even briefly, in the polls.
Enough already! Halve the field to the 10 who may qualify for September. Everyone else needs to fold up their campaign tents and go home now. You’re 15 minutes of fame are over.
I would cut the field even further.
While I appreciate Andrew Yang discussing the disruptive effects of the emerging economy of automation, robotics and artificial intelligence replacing human labor — something all the candidates should be addressing — his one trick pony campaign of a “freedom dividend” of $1,000 guaranteed income to every adult is a simplistic solution to what is a complex problem, and is not a solution.
Self-funding billionaire Tom Steyer is running a vanity campaign, money that would be better spent on his clean energy initiatives. Climate change is far more critical than satisfying his ego.
While Beto O’Rourke may qualify for the September debate, I would urge him to withdraw now and go back to Texas to run for the Senate. If he really believes that he can deliver the state of Texas for Democrats, that is what he should be working on. Continue the work he began with his previous senate run rebuilding the Texas Democratic Party and registering new voters. Republicans cannot win the presidency without Texas. Taking back the Senate is as critical as taking back the White House, and he should be running for the Senate instead.