Our current, sensationalized news-as-entertainment media model treats political campaigns like sporting events. In a fantastic piece in The Atlantic, Patrick Hruby quotes Reuters columnist Jack Shafer:
The jobs of political reporters and sports writers are almost identical: Determine who is ahead and who is behind; get inside the heads of the participants; decode the relevant strategies and tactics; and find a way to convert reader interest into sustainable enthusiasm. Then, maintain reader enthusiasm for the months and months of caucuses or preseason games, primaries or regular season games, conventions or playoffs, and the general election or Super Bowl....
There is little difference in the style of coverage and tone between sports talk shows on ESPN and political analyses on CNN or FOX. It's all about having a set opinion, defending it bombastically, talking over one another and getting the last word in.
This may be all good fun in stirring up the juices of competitive sports' fans, but it's disastrous for civil discourse. Sports-style political coverage oversimplifies issues and keeps the focus on the game of politics rather than the real issues that need to be addressed and the serious consequences of how, or if, they are addressed.
Sports-style news coverage has given Donald Trump a huge advantage. The billionaire has only had to pay for a fraction of the paid advertising that other leading candidates had to pay for. MediaQuant, a firm that tracks media coverage of each candidate and computes a dollar value based on advertising rates, shows Trump has been given nearly two billion (yes with a "B") dollars in free media coverage. Hillary Clinton came in a far distant second at nearly $750 million. The other candidates were not even in the same (pun-alert) ballpark.
The New York Times reported that in February of this year alone Mr. Trump was given $400 million worth of free media, "about what John McCain spent on his entire 2008 presidential campaign."
It's little wonder that news programs present politics only as aggressive, combative, (second pun-alert) trumped-up contests because that is what the majority of news consumers want. It's hard not to pause a moment to see what the next thing spewing out of the shockingly foul mouth is going to be. The spectacle draws us like moths to a flame. But the next time you find yourself moving toward the illusion of flickering light and tuning into such coverage ask if our political decisions might be more important than a football game and if perhaps those attractive flames are actually devouring our democracy.