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Politics as blood sport: Is this what we want?


There's a lot to bemoan about this presidential election campaign, but one thing sits at the top of my list of offenses against democracy: the behavior of the media.

This campaign has become simply another form of entertainment, and the media bear the blame. I've gotten used to the sins of television news, but those folks have nothing on the print media this year.

It's hard to know where to start in this discussion, but a good place might be the coverage of Donald Trump.

Trump probably would have been a phenom no matter what the media did. Journalists can't ignore him; his pronouncements are newsworthy, as harmful for the country as they are outrageous. But if we based our coverage on real news value rather than entertainment and online click value, the coverage would have been more balanced, less prominent. Instead, the media have obsessed over him, flooding him with free publicity. Every outrageous Trump statement ramps up the coverage. His every thought is given major play.

At one point on January 28, all of the following were on the homepage of the New York Times website: "The Complete List of Trump's Twitter Insults," "Looking Ahead to a Republican Debate Without Donald Trump," "Watch Live: Skipping Debate, Trump Holds Event," "Donald Trump Says He Has Been Talking to Roger Ailes," "Donald Trump's Childish Debate Boycott."

Equally problematic: the inaccurately named "debates," which have been a travesty. Candidates' position on stage, the number of questions they get, the amount of time they can talk: all of it is based on polls. The debates and the debate coverage then feed new polls. And poll standings affect the candidates' fundraising.

The debate smack-downs and the outrageous pronouncements are more fun to watch and read than policy discussions, though. So they're dominating the media coverage; the selection of the president of the United States is treated like a sports competition. And we didn't get a chance to learn much about some of the less outrageous candidates and where they stand.

On January 27, the Washington Post published a column by Harvard political scientist Danielle Allen, with this headline: "It's Time to Take a Serious Look at Martin O'Malley." Indeed it was. O'Malley, Allen wrote, is "a serious person, with serious things to say, and it's a travesty that he hasn't gotten more coverage."

And yet O'Malley could scarcely get a word in edgewise in the debates. And in the early morning hours of February 2, less than a week after Allen urged that we take a serious look at him, O'Malley ended his campaign, having been ignored by voters in that most unrepresentative of states, Iowa.

There are months to go before the election, but there's little reason to hope that the media will change. Journalistic ethics, the commitment to providing what voters need to exercise their civic duty, have been replaced by a fascination with entertainment and a quest for online clicks.

In her Wall Street Journal column on Saturday, Peggy Noonan described the people she was seeing at town halls in New Hampshire. Among them, a young black woman leaving a Bernie Sanders event.

"Are you for Bernie? I asked. 'Have you seen my T-shirt?' she replied and opened her jacket: 'Carson 2016.' I laughed and asked if she was trolling. She was startled. 'No, we just go see all the candidates.'"

She wasn't unusual. "Every adult in New Hampshire seems to go hear every candidate at least once," wrote Noonan. "They listen and take their measure; they give it the most precious thing they have, time. They take their duty seriously, not because they're jerky and self-important but because they have self-respect."

They take their duty seriously also, I think, because they respect our democracy. It's a shame that so much of the media have so little respect for it - and for the voters.