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From Gatekeeper to Ringmaster: How the Media Created a Campaign Monster

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

From Gatekeeper to Ringmaster: How the Media Created a Campaign Monster

Stephen H. Provost

Ever wonder why reason members of the public get angry at the major mainstream media outlets at election time? Here’s my answer: Instead of focusing on reporting the news, they emphasize interpreting it and predicting the results.

This doesn’t come across too well to the general public. Viewers and readers feel like they’re being told what to think and whom to support - or which candidates are (supposedly) viable and which aren’t.

But politics is notoriously fluid and changeable, so those predictions are often wrong, and this stark reality leaves media outlets in a no-win situation.

To wit: When the predictions misfire, they look as if they’re trying to drive the news rather than report it. Whether it’s true or not, they appear as if they’ve got a dog in the hunt or, at the very least, are being manipulated by spin doctors from the major parties or their chosen candidates. When the predictions are right, on the other hand, they tend to look like self-fulfilling prophecies, and people wonder what might have happened if the media had stopped speculating and started reporting.

As a member of the mainstream media, I understand why media outlets do this. There’s a nearly insatiable curiosity among the electorate to know the results as quickly as possible, and that curiosity results in web hits, viewership and readership. Speculation and prediction make for great clickbait.

When it comes to predicting outcomes, I’m not just talking about polls. I’m talking about the media’s role in interpreting these polls, even going so far as writing off some candidates, while declaring others “inevitable” before much of the voting is done. This benefits party hacks who operate under the credo “he may be an SOB, but he’s our SOB” and whose goal is to unify their troops behind a single standard-bearer as quickly as possible.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus reflected this mindset when he stated flatly, “I don’t care who the nominee is. Our job is to support the person that gets the majority of delegates – and whoever that is, is going to have the 100 percent support of the Republican Party.”

Even if it were David Duke? Joseph Stalin? Attila the Hun?


Setting the table

But back to the media. When its emphasis shifts from reporting to speculative analysis, do they cross the line from being a simple observer and actually become part of the story? It’s definitely a concern and, worse than that, a trend.

The tendency seems to be most pronounced on television, where the role of analyst as de facto cheerleader has evolved parallel to a similar development in sports. There, announcers have drifted from the traditional, dispassionate Vin Scully model to something that more closely resembles a ringmaster for pro wrestling. I’m not just talking about home team announcers, I’m referring to national announcers who try to “keep things exciting” by gushing over the winners as though they’re the second coming of Jim Thorpe, Jesse Owens and Babe Ruth all rolled into one.

Political commentators are taking the same approach, and cable TV election coverage in particular is starting to resemble a WWE free-for-brawl. Debate formats are designed to maximize the impact of zingers and minimize civil discourse, and their video intros look like the same kind of hype-driven buildup you’d see from Vince McMahon at Wrestlemania. Are the WWE founder and The Donald really that far apart in terms of self-promotion? (Both, incidentally, backed failed football leagues.) Is it any wonder that quite a few people have warned that Trump is really trolling everyone to promote his brand?

Trump is winning, in part, because media coverage has become tailor-made for the carnival barker, and he’s exploiting it because that’s what he knows how to do. He’s good at it. In a way, I can’t blame him, but I can blame the media for setting the table and drooling over the fact that he’s invited himself to their party of hype and glory.

It’s a symbiotic relationship that benefits both sides: One gets ratings, the other gets an ego boost – and the money from future book deals, speaking engagements and sponsorship agreements that’s bound to come with it.

What do the American people get? Entertainment. Which is exactly what the WWE is: World Wrestling Entertainment. It’s not real. But the presidential election is. Or it used to be. The way things are going, there’s reason to wonder.