To date, the candidates in the Republican presidential primary have participated in at least seventeen televised debates. For comparison, by this time in the 2008 campaign, the GOP had held nineteen (of an eventual twenty-one) debates and the Democrats had held twenty (of an eventual twenty-six). Whether it is the revolving-door nature of the top of the Republican field or the shrinking number of viable candidates (at most, four right now), though, this exercise is beginning to feel tired to many.
The reason this feeling persists at this stage may be that, in the aggregate, the debates do not seem to be progressing. We are not really learning anything new about the candidates in this context, and repetition or representation for the sake of catering to the still-undecided or underinformed holds less weight in the age of CSPAN and YouTube. To put it mildly, these are not the Lincoln-Douglas Debates in terms of either substance or practicality.
Given these circumstances, it is not terribly surprising that things mostly have devolved to name-calling. To a certain extent, what else is left for Mitt Romney to do but call Newt Gingrich a “lobbyist”? As between the remaining Republicans, all of the issues and policy positions have been hashed out, the candidates have to say something when it is their turn in the debate, and Ron Paul and Rick Santorum aren’t exactly surging ahead by staying on message.
What is surprising, or maybe just disappointing, though, is the vanishing political media during the campaign. It is true that we look to the media for basic reporting (who, what, where, and when) first and criticism second, but here, they’re outsourcing even their primary obligations, and the reports essentially are hearsay. The basic story of the past few days goes like this: “Mitt Romney says Newt Gingrich is a lobbyist. Gingrich says Romney is dishonest.” In every report I have heard or read on this issue, the media has failed to investigate or elaborate on the ground-level issue of how Gingrich spent his time after leaving Congress. Was he working as a lobbyist? The media answers: “Mitt Romney says he was.”
That cannot be the answer, though. From a factual standpoint, it may or may not be the answer; indeed, the answer may be factually complicated. From a vocational standpoint, however, the answer must constitute something more than mere readers’ theater. I don’t think all journalists and media outlets need to make like The Washington Post’s Fact Checker– one of the services the media provides is taking the time to sift through and distil the details so the rest of us don’t have to– but some modicum of investigation would seem to be necessary.
I am not sure why so much of the media becomes static and passive when covering campaigns. While some operations, like MSNBC and FOX, may go overboard in their investigatory engagement with political stories, are others going overboard in their attempt to present an image of neutrality? In a short, dense post last week, Eric Freeman wrote that the political media’s coverage of campaigns and politics mirrors sports media’s coverage of athletes and athletic contests. Freeman doesn’t directly answer the why question posed here, however, but he may shine some light on a possible answer.
Critics of news media often say that political coverage is unsatisfying because the networks and other outlets focus too much on entertainment. Television, radio, and print media must raise money to operate; advertising is a good fundraising technique; advertising is worth more if the audience is larger; a good way to increase audience is to present stories and other material that is entertaining, sensational, and otherwise attention-grabbing, even if it ultimately proves light on substance. While there seems to be some truth in the general capitalist tale that consumers are catered to based upon their interests but also are told what their interests should be, Freeman’s analogy suggests a simpler story that doesn’t involve news corporations duping their audiences: we look at and understand politics the way we look at and understand entertainment, and our news media therefore covers politics like others cover entertainment. CNN’s coverage of the primary debates sounds like The Soup‘s coverage of The Real Housewives of Atlanta. The most cutting commentary on campaigns comes from the comedians at Saturday Night Live. Comedians can be excellent, substantive social critics, see supra, here (penultimate paragraph), but SNL gets mileage out of playing up the candidates gaffes, not internal inconsistencies in policy proposals. “Undecided” GOP voters who say they need more debates to make up their minds really are asking for the networks to pick up Episode 18 of this season of The Real Candidates of the Republican Party. At this point, the set of options is defined, closed, and known; for the truly undecided, all the answers must come from within.