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How Low Can Political Journalism Sink?

After the 2016 election, we now know the answer. Campaign coverage has never been more vacuous, policy-free, and corrosive to democracy.

Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

An eye-opening study of the 2016 election by Tyndall Report, which tracks the content of the three nightly news programs on the broadcast networks, finds that since the beginning of the year, they have devoted a grand total of 32 minutes to comparing the major-party candidates for president on policy grounds. Just eight years ago, the tally was 220 minutes.

No single statistic about this election better explains why Donald Trump has a non-trivial shot at being elected president next week. Internal media pressures and decades of campaign reporting biases converged in 2016 to create a bread-and-circuses election, and it’s only natural that the ultimate bread-and-circuses candidate has reaped the benefits. Even if Hillary Clinton prevails, the means by which we get there—through a media gauntlet that prizes scandal over substance, and gotcha politics over the best tax plan—guarantees a perpetual cycle of distraction.

That’s hardly an original line of criticism, I know. But we often overlook the ultimate consequence: This distortion cycle enables governance that puts the pursuits of special interests over the people. The game is rigged, all right. But it’s rigged against treating politics as something that tangibly matters in people’s lives, rather than as a sideshow.

How did we get to this point? To really understand the decline of substance in campaign journalism, you can’t just blame cable news or the Internet: You have to go back to traditional media’s willful elimination of the public-interest motive in news coverage. Many analysts have recounted, as a prime example, how network television news was originally not expected to turn a profit, and how news divisions merely served the purpose of fulfilling the public-service conditions of FCC charters, freed from the ratings pressures of the entertainment properties.

This was never true. Network news always reeled in plenty of advertising. And while magazine shows like 60 Minutes did prove that news could compete with entertainment for profits, it’s not as though news divisions had suffered in poverty before then. However, we do know that the FCC gradually dismantled its public-interest requirements starting in the 1980s, and thereafter ratings and revenues became paramount. We often hear about the FCC’s old Fairness Doctrine in this context; once upon a time, it forced broadcasters to air both sides of contentious stories and give political candidates equal time. But while the 1987 repeal of the Doctrine was a blow, it was only a part of a continuum: The FCC declined to enforce the public-interest obligation, and broadcast networks declined to adhere to it.

Other factors in the devolution of the political media—not just on TV, but across the spectrum—have frequently been bandied about. The demise of newspapers dried up resources (and appetite) for serious political reporting. Fragmentation forced everyone in news to yell louder to attract eyeballs. While 24-hour news channels originally had reporting budgets and overseas bureaus (watch CNN International sometime when you’re overseas and you’ll see remnants of it), they were replaced by cheaply produced panel shows that cost nothing more than the studio cameras. Similarly, the rise of the Internet at first provided a greater forum for political and policy analysis, but it’s now devolved into a series of stops at Hot Take Junction.

The common thread is that nobody requires news outlets to even think about what information the public might need to operate in a free society. The public interest has been subsumed by the interests of executives, or shareholders, or investors, or whoever demands immediate bottom-line success. The subsequent lowest-common-denominator campaign coverage is only a byproduct of this short-term mindset.

Media producers, of course, fall back on public demand to explain their choice of topics. The ascendance of Trump has breathed new life into that excuse. ABC’s World News Tonight, currently the ratings leader among broadcast news, is drawing its largest audience in eleven years. CNN is also at an eleven year high, while Fox News Channel led in total viewers among cable networks for five months out of ten this year. Political websites have been reaping the whirlwind in equal measure.

This gave everyone the perfect excuse to further toss aside policy discussions in the 2016 cycle. Trump doesn’t care about issues, the reasoning went—at least not in any detailed, meaningful way—so why should the reporters covering him? This led political news all the way down the gutter where it’s always wanted to travel. Media outlets could focus uniformly on theater criticism, pre-game speculation, post-game wrap-ups, Trump’s latest atrocity, and poll analysis—all at an odd remove from the substance of the election and its actual consequences. It’s like the entire business has become an episode of The Talking Dead.

To the extent there’s been truly significant news-gathering in the 2016 election, it’s been put to use to slander the major-party candidates—which is, of course, why partisans on either side express such loathing for journalism. The serial failings of the Trump Foundation and his various businesses, or the endless reporting on Clinton’s email server and the Clinton Foundation, may be perfectly acceptable subjects for study, and there’s been some solid and necessary reporting on them. But even the best of these stories fit comfortably in an oppo research folder, to be used as weapons, fodder for the horse-race ebb and flow.

Furthermore, even the serious scoops of 2016 have had almost no bearing on what policies the candidates would pursue in office, and what would happen to 330 million Americans as a result. It’s newly quaint to think that these should be the questions animating a presidential campaign, but I guess I’m a throwback.

Horse-race reporters sometimes defend themselves by arguing that how candidates conduct themselves matters more than a position paper. “At the end of the day, your judgment going into office matters a whole heck of a lot more than what your policy proposals are,” sniffed the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza in September. This self-serving hypothesis conflicts with the established fact that presidents typically enter office and promptly try to make good on their party’s campaign promises, election-generated scandals and gaffes notwithstanding. So maybe finding out what they promise is relevant?

I suspect there’s been another, less-discussed reason why most media outlets haven’t wanted to hone in on issues in 2016: The presidential nominees were too consistent with the standard positions of the major parties for the last generation, in an election that’s supposed to be so wildly fresh and different. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have fought over the same old terrain on taxes, regulations, health care, immigration, guns, and abortion that the parties have occupied since they ideologically sorted in the years leading up to the Reagan revolution. Sure, Trump has broken with his party’s consensus on trade, but he’s a doctrinaire Republican on so many other matters that this is a distinction without a difference. Clinton’s running on the most progressive platform in American history—but it aligns seamlessly with where the party’s stood for so long.

Nobody wants to serve up a re-run of the parties arguing about the same core issues they have for 30 years. So “character attacks” and scandals breathe life into the old formula. And it’s true that nobody could claim that 2016 election coverage has lacked for entertainment value.

But what do we lose in the aftermath? Much more than we realize, thoroughly distracted as we are. American politics favors the powerful and the wealthy in part because ordinary people are no longer invited into the process. Indeed, they’re given no information that prompts them to act.

The relentlessness of horse-race politics is ultimately a form of political suppression, not just on Election Day but every day thereafter. Lobbyists thrive on complexity and an unaware public to take control of the political system. The media operates as an accessory to this crime.

I recognize the pomposity of a member of the media calling out the profession for failing the public. But sometimes you have to say out loud what Jon Stewart once said to the hosts of Crossfire: Stop hurting America.