It is Survivor Not Seabiscuit

A new genre of political reporting has been invented. The old model for campaign coverage, the insider-savvy Horse Race style, has been sidelined. Welcome to Reality Gameshow journalism.
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For Campaign 2008, a new genre of political reporting has been invented. The old model for campaign coverage, the insider-savvy Horse Race style, has been sidelined. Welcome to Reality Gameshow journalism.

Stop thinking of this election as a race to the wire to be won by the candidate with the finest pedigree, truest form and best connections. Start thinking of it as a cast of larger-than-life characters, scheming against each other while simultaneously trying to appear attractive to the electorate audience. Week by week the group undergoes media trials such as candidate debates and Sunday morning interviews. Each primary election constitutes another potential elimination round.

The winner gets to be a constant television presence in our homes for four years.

With open contests in both parties, this Presidential cycle offered the perfect opportunity to unveil this new method of coverage. The casting of the contestants could not have been better. In one tribe, as they say on Survivor, there was a handsome Mormon businessman, a colorful big city mayor, a slimmed-down Baptist minister and a crusty war hero. The other tribe had a self-made trial lawyer, a globetrotting Hispanic diplomat, a diligent feminist with that interesting celebrity marriage and an inspirational young African-American.

On television, longtime morning anchor Katie Couric, now at CBS Evening News is the leading proponent of Reality Gameshow journalism. Last fall she launched a series called Primary Questions asking the same array of ten topics to each candidate and then editing the answers to each question in montage form. Some of the topics concerned public policy such as global warming and foreign affairs, but many sought insight instead into the candidates' morality, temperament, tastes and personal background. She said the series is "designed to help you get a better idea of who they are." Couric explained her rationale for this approach when she reported approvingly on campaign consultant Drew Westen, author of The Political Brain, and his theory that it is honesty and authenticity, not policies and programs, that voters are searching for in their candidates.

This journalism is on the constant search for glimpses of the authentic individual behind the soundbites and stump speeches. It prefers freewheeling Straight Talk to the Talking Point of the Day. Its pivotal moment of the New Hampshire primary was when Hillary Rodham Clinton came close to tears in that Portsmouth diner. Comparing the coverage of Mitt Romney's speech on his Mormonism with Barack Obama's speech on his minister -- the former full of abstract platitudes, the latter laden with personal anecdotes of racial stereotyping -- it is no surprise that Obama's made news. Rodham Clinton strikes a chord as the harried multitasking mom by running ads depicting 3am emergencies and blaming her fibs about Bosnian sniper fire on "sleep deprivation."

The main task of television journalism is not so much to cover the race as to create its organizing events. At the start of the primary season these were the debates. Just like weekly rounds of American Idol they provided the raw material of interaction that becomes the fodder for discussion and dissection online. Besides the delineation of policy platforms, the debates provide the glimpses of human interaction that can be rerun in news clips and reshared on YouTube -- "You are likable enough, Hillary" -- like so many overheard snippets from Big Brother.

After the debates, the organizing elements that television news offers are performances, otherwise known as set-piece speeches, and elimination rounds, otherwise known as primary elections. Sometimes one of these events sets off sparks. Obama's speech about Jeremiah Wright certainly did. When this happens, the different criteria used by Reality Gameshow journalism and the Horse Race become obvious. A Horse Race journalist would consult opinion polls to measure the size of the support for each candidate. A Reality Gameshow journalist studies the viral activity, the online buzz a candidate inspires, to see what nerve has been struck -- not the size of the support but its intensity.

In this context, the entire question of favoritism and reporters' bias becomes recast. It is true that there have been strains of Obamamania and Hillarybashing this primary season. But the gameshow model has now found its final trio -- the grizzled old codger, the diligent supermom and the charismatic orator -- and that is not bias. That is casting.

More important, the gameshow structure requires that each major player undergoes severe jeopardy, stares near elimination in the face, enjoys improbable last minute reprieves, overcomes daunting ordeals. Thus Rodham Clinton can enjoy near-inevitability in November only to face must-win crises in March. Obama can seem a post-racial inspiration in winter only to be encumbered by his race-based minister in spring. John McCain even resurrected that old Comeback Kid line.

The abiding interest of Reality Gameshow journalism is not that a given candidate should win but that the contest be dramatic and the ordeal rigorous enough that the eventual winner will be seen to have deserved the Presidency.

To be pompous about it, Reality Gameshow journalism sees a Presidential election as a profound ritual -- more sociological than political -- that allows us collectively to take our national pulse. Sure, the contest is structured as an election: that provides the jeopardy of elimination, the exhilaration of survival, to make it dramatic. But what is at stake is far more important than who happens to be the Leader of the Free World for the next four years. It is about our very definition of ourselves as a society.

Seeing these candidates as characters, demographic archetypes rather than individuals, allows the contest to tap into resonant themes that run much deeper than technical issues of public policy. Thus the Reality Gameshow style enables a proxy discussion on issues that go way beyond a Presidential election: the role of religion in daily life, the glass ceiling facing women, the privileges we should grant our warriors, the virtues of affirmative action, muttered racial resentments, the dislocations of a globalizing society. The stuff that is talked about in the barbershop and around the kitchen table, as the saying goes.

Horse Race journalism has become as passe as the sport itself. I mean! Who visits the $2 window at Aqueduct any more? Horse Race journalism asks: "Who is going to win?" Reality Gameshow journalism asks: "What are the latent enthusiasms and anxieties that this race has illuminated." If it were just a Horse Race, the election could take a few weeks. A gameshow requires an entire season.

And besides, the Reality Gameshow makes for better television.

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