The “horse-race” coverage of this election has far exceeded that of any other election in history. Nearly every news network now reports primarily on the state of the presidential race rather than the substance of the candidate’s proposed policy. For instance, debates are reported as a winner take all, zero sum contest decided on by reporters. Debates seem to exist for the sole purpose of reporting the subsequent rise or fall in polling and no longer aim to inform the public.
Debates should be debated. They should not be evaluated solely according to style. In an ideal world we would have a truly bipartisan media, although outside of certain programs on National Public Radio or PBS truly bipartisan news does not exist. The “horse-race” style coverage that we are subjected to is the very catalyst to polarization. Television, print, and radio are all to blame and continue to fail in fulfilling their duty to properly inform the public.
Believe it or not, partisan news can be informative in certain circumstances. Partisans can add healthy commentary as long as they are grappling with tangibles such as policy and avoiding the mere aesthetics of a given campaign or political figure. For example, a liberal pundit can argue that taxes should increase on wealthier individuals in order to benefit those that are less fortunate. The pundit does not need to lie or extort detail in order to make a clear and succinct point. A fiscal conservative will vehemently oppose the pundit’s argument, despite their disagreement there is at least an attempt at having an informed discussion. These debates no longer occur as frequently as they should. We are currently caught up discussing the legitimacy of polls, the format of the debate, the fairness of the moderator, and even the temperature of the room during the debate.
Unfortunately, reporting on the implication of a given policy is nearly extinct and has been abandoned in favor of short sighted analysis. “Horse-race” coverage coupled with bias does not provide for substantive discourse. Of course there is room for analysis on polling and strategy but these topics should not dominate the headlines. Holding candidates accountable for lies and misleading allegations should be in the bold print not the fickle percentage points that change every 24 hours. “Horse-race” coverage lends politicians the ability to stretch the truth and it furthers polarization.
It’s not likely that the media will change the way in which it covers debates seeing as the very first televised presidential debate in 1960 was “declared” won by Kennedy solely due to his youthful and polished demeanor. So this is not some new phenomenon, and unfortunately it is not likely to change in the near future. As viewers we must resist the temptation to listen to those within the media who will immediately choose a winner following tonight’s debate. The winner of the debate should be the candidate that you agree with not the candidate that is most polished or most aggressive. It is fair to criticize the media for the lack of substantive discussion, but we must also point the finger at ourselves. The large networks and news organizations are providing us with the news that we demand not necessarily the news that benefits us as citizens. So maybe watch the debate on CSPAN tonight. As lame as that may sound... the five minutes of dead air leading up to the debate is arguably more informative than the two hours of refuse found elsewhere.