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How The Press Turns Our Elections Into Fake "Reality"
The Real World Is Plenty Dramatic On Its Own
This isn’t a prediction, but the most likely sequence events over the next sixteen months are the following: Joe Biden receives the Democratic presidential nomination. Donald Trump receives the Republican presidential nomination. Joe Biden is elected to a second term as president. Both men are the most popular leaders in their parties and with the exception of Trump, the last few presidents (Clinton, Bush, Obama) have been elected to a second term.
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Of course, anything can happen. For the last twenty years the voting public has provided endless drama and unexpected results. The 2000 election went all the way to the Supreme Court. The worst terrorist attack in U.S. history and a war provided the backdrop to multiple elections. America elected the first Black president ever. America elected the host of Celebrity Apprentice. Regardless of how you felt about these outcomes, the drama was very real, visceral, and we are still living with the reverberations.
But this isn’t enough for the mainstream press. Instead of reporting on the news, digging into candidates and issues, speaking to the voters, the press time and time again insists on injecting more drama into politics. Far too often there is a concerted effort, because the trajectory of politics appears too boring or predictable, the media plays the role of reality show producer. Instead of reflecting the world that is, an entire “reality” is constructed for the benefit of drama that attracts eyeballs and advertising revenue.
Robert Kennedy Jr. isn’t going to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. His campaign isn’t a serious challenge to President Joe Biden and it is largely being propped up by right-wing media like Fox News as part of a concerted effort to smear Democrats and create chaos (echoes of Rush Limbaugh — who is dead — pushing “Operation Chaos” during the 2008 election).
But the press is pretending like he has a shot. The supposedly liberal New York Times recently claimed that Kennedy’s candidacy is a headache for Biden and public polling showing purported strength for Kennedy is being over-covered and over-emphasized. Why are they doing this?
They hate covering Biden, much like they hated covering President Barack Obama before him. Both men surround themselves with wonky people who prioritize getting things done and there isn’t the soap opera drama of Donald Trump’s candidacy (which was NY Times reporter Maggie Haberman’s bread and butter), nor is there the sex scandal of Bill Clinton’s presidency or the war and terrorism backdrop of George W. Bush’s disastrous tenure. For much of the mainstream media, covering Biden is like watching paint dry. There isn’t enough bread or circuses.
So they’re just making it up. They’re pretending like the Democratic race will have the conflict and intensity of the Republican nomination (which might also be a dramatic dud, to be honest), because that’s the world the press would rather be covering.
They’ve done this before!
We rightly remember the 2012 election as a relatively rote affair, with President Obama easily securing the nomination and comfortably defeating Mitt Romney in the general election. But nearly eight years ago the press was similarly manufacturing phony drama.
Back in May 2012 the narrative was that Obama was facing trouble. In the Democratic primary in Kentucky, 42% of voters picked uncommitted, while Obama’s “challenger” in the Arkansas primary, was polling at nearly 40%. This false narrative was emphasized during the election as evidence that Obama, coming off of the Democrats’ poor showing in the 2010 midterm elections, had very real problems.
The final result of these dramatic developments? Obama received 88% of the vote among voters in the primary and won every single contest, easily securing his party’s nomination (by contrast, Romney won 52% of the primary vote).
Even worse are the manufactured controversies that are the bread and butter of election coverage. Pretending that Obama called Sarah Palin a “pig” in 2008. Asking Romney “what about your gaffes” in 2012. Repeatedly asking candidates of all stripes to comment on “optics” and polling, instead of inquiring about where they want to lead the country, challenging them on what they’ve done versus what they say they’ve done and on and on.
The substance of politics is just too boring for far too many in the press corps, who would prefer that they were covering one of the Real Housewives or Kardashians instead of Boring Barack and Boring Biden.
It isn’t going to get any better. The press is always in search of a shiny object to pretend is the most important topic in the world, ignoring the forest for the trees. But we in the voting public should be aware of what they are doing in real time. We should be aware that like “reality” TV, moments are being edited to emphasize dramatic tension and storylines that are as phony as the dragons on Game of Thrones.
American politics is plenty dramatic on its own. The press is doing a disservice when it injects fakery into the mix.
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