In July 2016 — about the midway point between Donald Trump’s first primary win and his general election triumph — the cumbersomely named Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy published an in-depth study supporting our suspicions: horse race coverage influences the race it aims to objectively analyze. Most notably, in the Republican Primary, “major news outlets covered Donald Trump in a way that was unusual given his low initial polling numbers — a high volume of media coverage preceded Trump’s rise in the polls.” In other words, as I’ve analyzed before, the media was complicit in the rise of the President it now almost relentlessly attacks.
Coming out of the tumultuous 2016 election, embarrassed media outlets purportedly analyzed their coverage and searched their souls. Did they learn from their mistakes? It’s becoming clear that at least one outlet has not. That outlet — which, in the midst of the Republican Primary was so excited to cover a Trump appearance that it decided to show a half hour of his empty podium instead of discussing hard news — is CNN. Last Wednesday, as I made my way through the news sites, the network’s patented blood red NEWS ALERT caught my eye. Here’s a screenshot:
BREAKING NEWS WE HAVE A 2020 POLL AND OPRAH IS PART OF IT! On a day where we had a deadly shooting in a Kentucky school, a massive earthquake off the Alaskan coast, and a budget showdown in a hapless Congress, CNN’s news alert vomited up polling for an election that’s 32 months away and has precisely zero official candidates.
As someone who once binged on polling before purging it onto PPFA readers, I risk hypocrisy when I say, “Nooooo!” You, CNN, are part of the problem. At least I wait until the actual election season. You are looking to frame the 2020 election while we just barely started on the 2018 midterms. Do we like polling? Always! Do we gobble it up? Ravenously. Is it like catnip for political junkies? Meow! But, like a parent who doesn’t serve up a king-sized Snickers bar for dinner, it’s the responsibility of a supposed news network to not give us what we want just because we want it. Be responsible. Do your job. Give us policy and substance, not winners and losers.
The poll itself threw three potential Democratic candidates — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and, of course, Oprah Winfrey — against President Trump in hypothetical match-ups. Each won this hypothetical poll, just like every Democrat won every hypothetical poll in 2016 before Donald Trump won the actual election. Hypothetical match-ups, even just a few months before casted ballots, are generally pointless exercises in comparative popularity; years before and there’s no point whatsoever, other than to induce clicks and attract viewers.
This self-serving motivation is at the root of the problem that fed Trump’s flowering and soon, perhaps, Oprah’s as well. CNN and other news outlets revel in ratings-boosting celebrity culture. In 2016, it and other networks fed us empty calories (and podiums) instead of more nourishing policy speeches because that’s what we seemed to care about.
I mentioned this concern after Oprah’s Golden Globes speech. I not only warned Democrats (pleaded with them?) to avoid Oprah’s allure, which could contribute to the continued collapse of American political standards, but I lamented those declining standards themselves. Considering modern news coverage, we now understand why a celebrity, who is by definition well-known, won a popularity contest voted on by a largely uninformed electorate. The media’s job, however, is not to tell us who’s popular. Instead, it’s to ask and try to answer important questions that inform us about all candidates, popular or not. What are their policies? What’s different about candidates’ platforms? What’s similar across candidates in a party? Have the candidates shown they have a command of these issues?
Instead, as the Harvard study shows us, preciously little time was spent toward these topics.
The media spent five times more coverage on the competition than on the substance. Overall, only about a tenth of the media’s time was spent on the substantive issues. What a condemnation of the media’s performance.
Under such a framework, it’s no wonder the most brazenly incurious major candidate in American history became the nominee of his party and president of my country. While he can be given credit for taking advantage of the media’s tendencies, that does not absolve the media of its disproportionate coverage of him in 2015, particularly of his events and polling success rather than his grasp of the issues and the office. The media gave us what we wanted (TRUMP!), and we responded in kind (RATINGS!). The cycle created a phenomenon and handed us a president both we and the media deserved.
You’d think they’d want to break that cycle, but that 2020 poll tells us differently. Yes, we were tantalized by the drama of an Oprah run, and yes, they knew we’d click on an article about her more frequently than one on trade policy or the United Nations. If the media is mortgaging our future then we are surely cosigners on that loan. But just because we’re tantalized does not mean CNN should exploit that tantalization. Oprah never held office nor has she declared her candidacy for one. Why put her in a poll against the President? Why not be responsible and allow more serious candidates to start their run, raise some money, and form a staff before Oprah makes it difficult for anyone else to get traction?
It’s because an insatiable CNN sees a potential feast: a celebrity versus celebrity presidential election. Every ratings record will be broken. No election will be more salaciously covered or more hotly debated. Dystopia’s arrival will not only be accepted by media conglomerates across the country, but paired with it will be thrilling music and glitzy graphics. Like a voracious black hole, the media will happily consume all that’s left of our founding fathers’ light if it means they can add a ratings point to the 18 to 34 demographic. It will then only be able to cover the darkness it helped create.
Wikipedia notes the following about “horse race” journalism:
- It is “political journalism of elections that resembles coverage of horse races because of the focus on polling data, public perception instead of candidate policy” like how “a horse is judged not by its own absolute speed or skill, but rather by its comparison to the speed of other horses, and especially by its wins and losses.”
- Covering an election like a horse race provides journalists, and therefore media consumers, “a framework for analysis.”
- It emphasizes “the standings of a poll or caucus,” but “it fails to display the strengths/weaknesses of each politician.”
- Horse race coverage also focuses on “the level of testosterone found in the candidates’ male ancestors.”
Okay, I made that last one up.
It even deigned to talk about favorable/unfavorable splits after the candidates with record unfavorables won their parties’ nominations. It’s as if they’re still covering elections like it was the 1990s.
To clarify my Oprah position, I don’t feel her lack of political experience is disqualifying. Any number of historians, social scientists, foreign policy experts, CEOs, or Constitutional lawyers might prove themselves worthy of the job. My problems with Trump stemmed more from his lack of knowledge and curiosity, among other things, than his political inexperience. We should be embracing curiosity and knowledge, not celebrity and drama. My problem with the Oprah developments — beyond my concerns shared in the earlier piece that centered around the devolution of American politics — is how the speculation generated so much buzz from the media and general population, an excitement they would never afford a Ben Sasse, Maria Cantwell, Rob Portman, or Mark Warner. Do most Americans even know who those people are? I doubt it. Yet they’re United States Senators who could each be a pretty good president. Way to go, media.