How to cover the primaries

How to cover the primaries
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Well, Romney won the Florida primary, and along with Newt Gingrich the main loser was the American news media.

In a fantastic piece in New York Magazine last week, John Heilemann made the entirely accurate, but rarely heard observation that no one has benefited more from the inexplicable Newt surge than the press that’s been forced to endlessly cover and analyze it. A surprise pretender to the throne can always count on excited coverage in the midst of a coronation.

With Florida out of the way, there will be six primaries or caucuses in the coming month: Maine, Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota, Arizona, and Michigan. As a mostly moderate mix of states, several of which have strong personal ties to the former governor, almost all are expected to be easy wins for Romney. Already badly wounded by worsening national numbers in the lead up to this week’s vote, Gingrich will have to struggle mightily to remain competitive in February, which is very bad news for anyone anticipating another month of high-stakes political drama.

I suspect the press will work furiously to try and manufacture some anyway. The 11-states-in-one-day Super Tuesday primary fiesta, slated for March 6 of this year, is in many ways the Super Bowl of American politics, second only to the general election itself. And just as a one-sided wallop makes for a crappy football game — and even crappier ESPN ratings — a political slugfest with a predetermined conclusion is the last thing any self-respecting news outlet with an eye on the bottom line will be prepared to accept.

For several weeks now, primary coverage has thus adopted a consistently Romney-softening tone. We hear endless stories about his “liabilities,” in the form of his wealth, taxes, and cold-hearted business past, while the worst that’s said about Gingrich is that a lot of establishment Republicans seem to dislike him. For a candidate who revels in elite rejection, this is a bit like criticizing Rick Santorum for going to church every Sunday.

Frightened by the practical consequences of Romney’s inevitability, there’s an obvious effort afoot to handicap the field — and the evidence is getting harder to deny. Earlier this month the Center for Media and Public Affairs noted that Romney has received “by far” the most negative coverage of his campaign, and observed that the press has spent nearly six times as much time covering the supposedly “competitive” nature of the GOP primary as the actual positions of any of the candidates within it.

And who can blame them! As fellow political junkies, you’ve doubtlessly enjoyed the narrative the media’s been feeding us so far. You know, the one about the plucky Massachusetts moderate who has to battle with this vast cavalcade of evil crazy people before finally squaring off man-a-mano against Newt Gingrich, the evilist and craziest guy of all. Maybe you’ve even hosted entire theme parties based around the premise. I know I have.

The alchemy of transforming politics into entertainment has been so seamless and successful that most of us don’t even know who’s to blame anymore. When I wrote a recent article for the Huffington Post about why I prefer the open US primary system over cloistered Canadian leadership elections, many commenters blasted the United States for having an “American Idol” approach to picking its leaders, as if twice-weekly televised debates, endless attack ads, and Jon King’s magic touch-screen map were somehow constitutional obligations. Even when Gingrich himself points out how openly and obviously he is being typecast by the press for a villain role he never auditioned for, the commentariat’s only response is to change the script, and crudely scrawl “Gingrich versus the media” over the heading of Act III.

As spoiled gluttons of the 24-hour news buffet, it’s hard to deny that we viewers deserve a lot of the blame ourselves  Following politics has, in many respects, become a sort of fantasy football league for a certain subculture of the self-righteously smart, with all sorts of stats to track, calendars to memorize, trivia to recite, and TV specials to watch. Resigning democratic politics to an important, but minor part of one’s life — even one’s civic life — seems to require a degree of moderation and perspective most us have long since abandoned in exchange for the feisty drama of CNN and FOX.

As a political cartoonist, I obviously risk becoming part of the problem every day. The cartoonist has an enormous incentive to make politics more interesting, funny, and lively than it actually is, to say nothing of inflating the seriousness of the stakes and principles involved. The problem is one of self-fulfilling prophecy. I remember once reading the memoirs of a cartoonist who noted that the more exaggerated he would draw politicians’ hair, the more exaggerated they would proceed to wear it in real life, lest they fail to live up to public expectations. And so too, the more any agent of the press exaggerates the degree of conflict between candidates, the tightness of a race, or the importance of the outcome, the more likely it is that our politics will become precisely the sort of vitriolic, childish, reality show we all pretend to not want.

Is there a way to prevent politics from turning into entertainment, or is this just the inevitable byproduct of profit-driven news coverage in an ever-more competitive million-channel universe? Do you find yourself rooting for longer primaries and tighter races simply because you enjoy the drama? Both the right and left often complain that little of consequence actually changes from election to election, so is an overly sensationalistic press the only party to blame for the fact that so many of us continue to find politics so “interesting?” Let me know what you think.


  1. @fardmuhammad

    Is that Charles Krauthammer on the third screen? Cool likeness. :)

  2. @ThePsudo

    Your mention of theme parties reminds me how odd I am. Apart from that, I can find anything in your analysis to object to.

  3. Guest

    Nah, US primaries (also leadership elections generally) are normally so devoid of actual politics I personally find them utterly uninteresting. The press make it worse as they spend all their time talking about positioning. When policy is discussed, it's largely limited to explaining a policy then pulling in 2 vox pops to give maybe three reasons for or against.

  4. anon

    "Is there a way to prevent politics from turning into entertainment, or is this just the inevitable byproduct of profit-driven news coverage in an ever-more competitive million-channel universe?"

    "Do you find yourself rooting for longer primaries and tighter races simply because you enjoy the drama?"
    Yes, but only out of self-interest. If I didn't work in the media, I would be of the opinion that the Presidential election should be little more than a two-month campaign. However, I write for a living, and longer campaigns translates into more job opportunities for me.

    "…is an overly sensationalistic press the only party to blame for the fact that so many of us continue to find politics so 'interesting?'"
    Completely untrue. In the United States, the media lies almost entirely within the private sector. Why should anyone blame profit-seeking organizations for doing what they've been created to do?

  5. @ThePsudo

    I think by "No." you mean "The latter."

  6. Ironica

    How can a question be 'Completely Untrue'?

    As a writer it seems odd that two of your answers don't make sense to the questions you selected to answer. I guess you have a good editor.

  7. anon

    I was drunk.

  8. Kwyjor

    Remember when you said the 2010 race for the governor of California was "a fascinating case study of remarkable variables and peculiarities, and will no doubt be analyzed by political scientists for many decades to come" ?

  9. J.J. McCullough

    And I stand by it. What's the problem?

  10. Kwyjor

    I thought there were some evident parallels between such language and this media coverage. Or maybe I'm just trying to be too clever. Oh well.

  11. FLT

    Maine is close by Romney's home state of Massachusetts. Nevada, Colorado, and Arizona all have sizable LDS populations, which will help Romney. Of course, the LDS electorate is still not big enough to make a significant impact, and I'm not saying people will vote for the guy simply because they attend the same church. However, voters will be more likely to have LDS friends and neighbors and they won't buy into the anti-Mormon nonsense that many southern evangelicals believe in places like South Carolina (which, by the way, was the key factor in Gingrich's victory there.) Mitt Romney's dad was governor of Michigan, and older voters have very good memories of George W. Romney. Minnesota…well…he'll most likely win that one too :-)

  12. ron hanson

    We only have an election every four years unless we have a minority government. You poor people have to put up with the hype and BS for four years and start over in another endless round of campaigning and complaining! HOw do you stand it? On the LDS question, they may not have the numbers to swing a vote but they do have the work ethic to put together the most powerful machine you have ever seen. Many of them won't stop going full tilt until Mitt is president. YOu could do worse. Obama is going to turn the US into a socialist mess if he gets another turn. We had Trudeau, a socialist here for a few years and we are still digging out of his assinine policies.

  13. @ThePsudo

    First off, our Presidential election cycle only takes about 2 years, not 4, and is largely confined to party insiders and the news networks until the general election (which will start around late summer or early fall this year). If you're not an obsessive news junkie, it's basically invisible until then. This just happens to be a website for obsessive news junkies.

    Need some objective evidence of that? Here are viewership numbers for the GOP debates: The most-watched debate has 7.6 million viewers out of a nation of 313 million people (2.4% of the population). Compare that to the 130 million who voted for McCain or Obama in 2008, when the population was 302 million people (43% of the population). Another way to look at it is money: the FEC predicts that more than $11 billion will be spent by the Presidential Campaigns in the 2012 election cycle but so far they only have $281 million between them (2.6% of expected). More than 97% of the election still resides in the future even though we're already a month into the election year.

    Secondly, I've heard Canada has a little burst of political ads every time the opposition thinks the PM might call for an election or that they can use public pressure to induce a vote of no confidence. If that's so (pardon my outsider's perspective), what's the difference between that and the perpetual election cycle you perceive in the USA?

  14. Jake

    No one has to put up with anything. Turn off the TV, don't go on political websites, don't listen to the radio, etc. etc. At least know when elections are, in Canada its like an addict always itching for it but never comes. Wasn't Canada fighting for fixed elections cause of that? Same goes with the UK. Parliaments seem to be moving toward a Congressional form of governments except without the strong republican forms (state versus federal).