Huffington Post

Cable News Debate Coverage Is Hurting Democracy

(My latest column for the Huffington Post)

Chuck Todd likes to occasionally refer to the political press as "the refs." While at first glance it appears to suffice, it's actually just another bad euphemism in a growing list of hackish politics-as-sports metaphors intended to deflect criticism and exculpate the news media when it clearly fails to effectively hold accountable our elected officials. I'm not sure if Todd and the others realize that "the refs" both diminishes the role of the press and abrogates its responsibility to the public.

Whether it's print or broadcast news, the press is the only industry specifically named in the Bill of Rights, preserving for history the founding mandate that the press remain independent and unconstrained as a means of checking government power. Consequently, an unrivaled degree of integrity is required to fulfill that mandate. The ability to remain objectively segregated from political influence and coercion, not to mention the whimsy of the public, isn't an easy task, but, in deference to its inclusion in the Constitution, a degree of professional discipline beyond what's found in other professions is crucial in order to adequately serve democracy.

Perhaps it's an overly idealistic expectation, but, in pursuit of the truth and with the goal of informing the public, journalists, editors and reporters ought to make decisions in spite of and divorced from what happens to be popular with readers and advertisers. Unfortunately, ratings, ad revenue and acquiescence to conservative misinformation appear to be dictating what's aired.

Put another way, if the framers of the Constitution had watched CNN's Tea Party Republican debate Monday night, they might have reconsidered their priorities. I'm not sure if "Congress shall make no laws abridging the freedom of games shows" would have made the cut at the convention.

And that's exactly what CNN put on the other night. A game show. The cable news media has gone from simply cracking gaming and sports metaphors to actually becoming a game, with politicians as the contestants and a rotating guest panel of snickering propagandists and "analysts" as the judges. The only difference is that contestants on traditional game shows are held accountable when they answer incorrectly -- they're penalized monetarily or eliminated from the game altogether. But our cable news game show hosts just move on to the next question, so, in this regard, Wink Martindale might be a tougher moderator than Wolf Blitzer.

I'm not sure if CNN knows it, but nearly everyone across the political spectrum thought the CNN presentation of the debate was ridiculously self-satirical -- a laughing stock only rivaled by the Fox News debate several weeks ago. It's almost as if the producers and planners were deliberately attempting to air something that Jon Stewart would definitely mutilate the following night (he did).

The telecast opened with what appeared to be a movie trailer for the debate, and then segued into Michael-Buffer-meets-Alex-Trebek introductions for each candidate, with a jive disc jockey announcer presenting bios for the participants complete with, yes, nicknames. Newt Gingrich, for example, was "The Big Thinker" and Rick Santorum was "The Fighter." I'm not sure what this served to do, and I have no idea why CNN chose to give everyone simplistic titles, but the McDonaldland rogues gallery of nicknames (which candidate was "The Hamburglar"?) made the list of usernames in World of Warcraft seem super serious by comparison.

Even the stage itself was designed like a game show set, only this one looked like Captain America's bathroom if Captain America had projectile vomited a series of CNN logos everywhere. By the halfway point, I thought they were going to wheel out glass booths where the candidates would scramble to grab up a thousand dollars in "free cash", accompanied by questions from Blitzer with the setup, "One hundred tea party people surveyed, the top five answers are on the board, and here's the question: Name five clues proving that Obama wasn't born in the United States."

This is all to say that people don't watch debates for the stupid handles or flashy gimmicks. They don't watch to find out whether Herman Cain likes thin crust pizza or if Newt Gingrich watches American Idol (these bits of pointless information were revealed during the aforementioned the Fox News debate). The only positive development in the modern era of political debates is the viewer participation through social media, but those features are only sparingly employed, and, when they are, they're not really taken seriously by anyone involved.

Short of that, the cable news networks are hurting democracy.

The post-debate coverage is easily where the most egregious hurting takes place. Even if the debate itself is an abomination and nothing of substance is accomplished, the cable news networks have infinite broadcast resources (ostensibly 24 hours a day and seven days a week, save for MSNBC's inexplicable prison rape programming), which they can exploit for the purposes of fact-checking and analyzing the candidates' policy proposals. Here is where the networks can live up to their mandate by explaining whether Rick Perry's health care plan will actually work, rather than elaborating upon the style with which he talked about it. They ought to explain whether Ron Paul's libertarianism conflicts with his acceptance of Medicare benefits and pull back the curtain on his shallow Randian cult worship. They ought to explain whether Mitt Romney's economic plan will expand the economy and create jobs in a more effective way than the current administration policy.

Rather than jibber-jabbering on and on with canned zingers about who won and who scored the most points or who "closed the deal", the appropriate role for cable news in the post-debate segments of the telecast is to inform viewers about how the candidates intend to help America and if the help is practical or ridiculously ineffective. Explain it to us so we can be informed. Whichever candidate scored the biggest zinger is quite possibly the least consequential aspect of debate, at least when it comes to who can most capably govern the executive branch.

If fewer people watch because the discussions are too wonky and detailed... so what? Again, the press is tasked with holding politicians accountable. If they've presented an idea that policy experts agree might work, then say so, and then show us why. If they've presented an idea that policy experts agree is awful, then say so, and then show us why. Call out the hypocrisy and contradictions, and then explain.

A "referee" merely cites an error, levies a penalty and is never tasked with explaining his or her decision. The modern press, on the other hand, is unmatched in the history of human communication. It has the capability to access untold volumes of information and to instantly relay that information to tens of millions of people via multiple transmission formats. But due to increasingly obvious corporate and financial subversion of the press, this technology is misappropriated as a means of teasing, titillating and sensationalizing the news. A referee throws down a yellow flag and then takes his or her time to examine the evidence and render a verdict. If only the cable news people performed this efficiently and effectively in a debate.

The news media has become so thoroughly neutered by a 40-year conservative guilt trip regarding a so-called "liberal media bias" that, consequently, they've developed a pathologically self-conscious aversion to saying anything that might sound even slightly left-leaning. Therefore cable news reporters and hosts shy away from revealing the truth in lieu of non-controversial horse race coverage of politics.

Logic, however, dictates that reporting the truth always favors one group over another, be it a prosecutor over a defense attorney, the Orioles over the Yankees or liberals over conservatives. If the reality is that liberal policy X makes more sense and has been objectively proven to work, then there's no legitimate reason why that information should be withheld from the public.

So in an effort to improve its political coverage, the networks need to downsize the inclusion of "political analysts" while increasing the ranks of well-spoken and compelling policy wonks. Drop the silly puff questions. Drop the sporting event introductions. And tell us if these politicians are accurate in their statements and if their ideas are within the boundaries of efficacy, and then explain. If it's boring, so be it. Once all of the serious details are sussed out, have some fun with score-keeping, gaffes and sucker-punches as a kicker.

In other words, inform the democratic process or make way for journalists who are capable of doing so. Considering the syllabus of issues on the table, I can't think of a more appropriate time for the cable news media to step up and do its job.

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