The media division of our campaign-industrial complex (sponsored by Citizens United, thank you very much) is bound and determined to be the economic powerhouse of the 2012 recovery. Between the billions spent on campaign ads and issues ads, you’d think the networks would be reeling drunk with cash, but no…they want more, more, more! It’s never enough.
And they know exactly how to get it.
They commissioned poll after poll over the past few months — many finding a disturbingly widening gap between the presidential candidates. Prior to the first big debate we saw Obama up by 9 to 10 points in battleground states. This made great short-term fodder in the headlines (cue the TODAY show theme music with Matt Lauer’s vaguely threatening voice-over: Good Morning, President Obama surges in the polls as the Romney team struggles to recover from yet another campaign gaffe….). But the real doom and gloom was what this spelled for the networks — this trajectory was clearly not going to produce the political red-meat the media needed for robust ratings leading up to the election.
They needed a cage-fight.
American television networks (creators of noteworthy cultural gems like Housewives of New Jersey, The Voice, America’s Got Talent, and the Ultimate Fighter), have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to foster conflict through sensationalism to boost ratings. Thus they really primed the veiwership pump prior to the recent debates.
Debate One: The Thunderdome of American Politics — a “can’t miss” event, the ultimate clash of titans that was billed as a do-or-die moment for Team Romney. Seriously, the media build-up was simply unmatched in history. They hyped the living-shit out of this 90 minute dust-up as if the preceding months and years of campaigning were all for naught and, as it turns out, they subsequently drew-in 67.2 million viewers . Then, not missing beat, did a full post-game market analysis of their viewer numbers:
ABC: 11.25 million
NBC: 11.1 million
CBS: 10.6 million
FOX: 10.436 million
CNN: 6.1 million
MSNBC: 3.9 million
The media went on to declare Romney the overwhelming “winner” of the debate — no argument on that point. But the fourth estate crossed the line when they collectively declared over and over again that Obama’s “subdued”, “lackluster” and “unengaged” performance was going to cost him big-time in the polls. Sure, maybe a point or two….but nooooo….after 24 straight hours of hammering Obama for his lethargic demeanor — the mainstream media, now rolling in their ratings like a dog on a dead fish, conducted polls that…wait for it….reflected exactly what their pundits predicted…which in-turn generated more tsk-tsking over the president’s sleepy showing.
Debate Two: Media says (with a yawn) that while Obama improved, he’ll still have to make a good showing in round three….
Debate Three: Hey, how ’bout those Tigers?
Ignoring the fact that Obama kayoed Romney in the two remaining debates, the pundits continued shaking their little money-makers all over the 24-hour media, ginning-up an increasingly tight political race, calling it “razor-thin”, “neck and neck”, “too close to call”. These professionals are supposedly in the business of political forecasting, but instead they are, in a very real way, controlling the electoral climate through their under-informed guesses. (My sock drawer would make a better oracle than most of these folks –the blue socks seem to be in the lead.)
So, here’s the thing:
They refuse to admit they have a hand in rigging the political ship.
Journalists like to pretend they are mere spectators simply reporting what they see, and occasionally editorializing to provide clarity on the issues. Pure as the driven snow are they.
It was particularly disturbing to learn that Dylan Byers of Politico and David Weigel of Slate recently criticized respected journalist, Alec MacGillis, Senior Editor of The New Republic, for writing a piece critical of the media in which he stated the obvious: “If the press decides in the moment that one debate matters a whole lot more, then odds are…it will matter a whole [lot] more.” As MacGillis was quick to point out, he was simply doing what any good journalist would by reporting the significant role the media plays in the course of politics — a function which runs the risk of manipulating the process, ala Hunger Games, to serve its own ends.
It’s one thing when work-a-day desk jockeys, who have nothing to gain, thrill to the chase of a narrative arc they find too precious to cede, but for broadcast television to tacitly collude in that kind of journalistic “err” is monstrous in its potential scope of damage.
The electoral process is the ultimate cultural Rube Goldberg machine. It has so many moving parts that, much like the economy, it remains nearly impossible to grasp. Every player has a role — and television media may be a greater driving force than all the super PACs combined. Remember, they are pretty much the sole recipients of all that delicious PAC cash, and the hotter the political environment, the better their bottom-line will be. To pretend they don’t have a dog in the hunt is beyond disingenuous — it should be criminal.
In presidential political races it seems the clicker is still more powerful than the mouse.
Amy Kerr Hardin