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.