I’ve just come from ABC’s “This Week,” where Newt Gingrich, Matthew Dowd, Donna Brazile, and I went from talking about “American Pharoah”’s Triple Crown win to the Republican and Democratic primaries. In other words, it was all about horse races. The media seems to have no other way to address American politics than to ask who’s ahead and who’s behind, rather than what the candidates stand for and what America needs.
Seven months until the first primaries, and 17 until Election Day, we have plenty of time for a national debate about the nation’s real challenges. Yet every Republican candidate is repeating the same platitudes (strengthen the military, lower taxes, and promote religious values) the GOP has been spewing for 35 years. Scott Walker leads the pack in Iowa, but on the basis of, what? Fighting unions, defunding Planned Parenthood, making it harder for students and low-income people to vote, blocking abortions after 20 weeks even in cases of rape or incest, and threatening a constitutional amendment allowing states to decide on same-sex marriage. Oh, and he rides a Harley. He’s a brainless knee-jerk conservative whom the media is celebrating because he happens to be up in Iowa, whose Republican caucuses haven’t predicted anything in years.
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are discussing real issues. She wants to create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and expand Obama’s executive order on immigration, roll back Republican state laws designed to suppress the votes of the poor, automatically register citizens to vote when they turn 18, demilitarize the police, and get rid of mandatory prison sentences. Bernie Sanders wants to bust up the biggest Wall Street banks, make higher education free, and strengthen safety nets. But as long as the media remains fixated on the political horse race, America isn’t going to be debating any of this. Horse-race reportage allows the Republicans to get away with their racism, homophobia, anti-worker economics, and total dearth of ideas, while burying the important initiatives Democrats are proposing.
So what’s the answer?
TV news? It’s come a long way from the days when I used to watch it with my parents every night. We never missed the 10 o’clock news. Dan Rather. David Brinkley. The giant himself, Walter Cronkite. Most people watched television news at least on a daily basis, especially if you didn’t take time to read a daily paper. You couldn’t consider yourself well informed without reading at least one paper a day.
Today the newspaper industry has either moved online, or fallen by the wayside. TV news, the baseline for an informed society through most of my life, has become a pre-digested wasteland of oatmeal reporting on one end of the spectrum, and a haven for the craziest of right-wing political views on the other. You could still watch the nightly news if you wanted to, but why bother? Most of the events that will be reported on during that half-hour broadcast are old news by the time the TV reports on them.
But I am a news junkie, have been one all my life. I don’t feel like I’ve finished my day unless I’ve had a dose of the day’s events summarized for me. So I need news, and a steady stream of it works best. Since I spend large sections of my day with a laptop, that’s generally not a problem. Still, I like my news to sometimes be delivered in a video format. I am constantly two-screening as the saying goes; writing or gaming on one screen, watching something on another one.
I watched MSNBC daily for more than a year (probably more like three years) I started watching back when Dylan Ratigan was brought on. The TV would be on and tuned to MSNBC from mid-afternoon through most of the evening shows, pretty much every weekday. During that time I felt more informed, but spent large segments of my day trapped watching repetitive news items. As the hosts of the afternoon and evening programming changed, with Ratigan famously flaming out (a moment I’m glad I got to see live) Cenk Uygur being added and then hastily removed, the inclusion of Al Sharpton’s hour-long program (which inexplicably remains on MSNBC despite his lack of journalistic competence) Chris Matthews’ maddening insistence on reporting politics as if it was a horse race (echoing Reich’s comments) rather than something real, I found my interests waning.
For the last few months I’ve moved away from watching any television news and getting my news almost exclusively from the internet. The news programming on television feels disconnected from the reality of living in the US today; All In with Chris Hayes & The Rachel Maddow Show being the few exceptions to this observation (and a shout out to MHP on weekend mornings for being worth getting up for) but not worth the time to record and watch daily.
The only TV news I still reliably take the time to watch is faux news (as opposed to FOX news which is fake but treated as real) The Daily Show and The Nightly Show (which replaced The Colbert Report earlier this year) studies have shown not only that most younger people get their TV news from these shows, but that people who watch these shows are more informed than people who watch real TV news. Which is a sad state of affairs if you think that TV news is important and relevant.
The solution to this problem is to move with the times. As other commenters noted on the status, television news is a largely dying industry. They influence smaller and smaller segments of the population. The Young Turks gets more eyeballs than television news, and other internet sites do even better than they do at communicating news through text articles; the way humans have consumed news since the invention of the printing press.
When you look at the problem from a modern perspective, people are more connected than they have been in decades to the events around them. This fact doesn’t reliably translate into actual influence of events, doesn’t sway the actions of the political leaders, probably because of the corrupting influence of money in politics. The solution is to target the sources of corruption and get them closed off through legislative action in the states. It can be done, but it won’t be a short process.