Anyone who watched CNN recently to follow Donald Trump’s antics undoubtedly noticed the clock counting down to the start of the Republican debate along with overdramatic commercials seeming to promise a fight night. CNN basically turns into a sports network for debates, hyping the big event and running pregame coverage all day and especially in primetime. Pundits and partisans make predictions and use spin to ponder such important issues like what zinger Trump will use or how a December 2015 debate will affect a candidate’s mid-December polling for the 2016 election. People also seem to pretend like Trump’s policies are worthy of debate, thus normalizing fringe ideas, especially the similar and same fringe ideas that other Republican candidates use covertly. CNN primes the audience for a debate that, like its coverage, will mostly be style over substance, a debate that could eventually help decide the next president of America.
The debate wasn’t much different from watching Vince McMahon wrestling productions. Last night’s theme was fear, terror, and insecurity, and thousands of people attended live as they could hardly bear the suspense of what exciting thing would happen next. Someone says something that gets a few people to applaud, and then another candidate throws a sharp left hook with a rebuttal that makes the crowd go wild. Now people in the audience are split in who they support and hope their candidate lands the next big blow. If all else fails, the candidate can run out the time in each round to make it sound like he/she gave a good answer and to avoid having to actually answer the question. A more aggressive tactic may be to jump into the ring and start attacking without being called on by a moderator, talking over opponents if necessary. Even the moderators provided some of the entertainment. The audience loved it, but a Republican debate once again makes America worse off than it would have been if it hadn’t watched.
The vast majority of the debate focused on foreign policy and national security, which allowed the candidates to pivot to any terrorism talking point at their disposal regardless of the question. It creates a feedback loop in which polling shows America’s greatest fear is from terrorism stemming from a fundamental interpretation of Islam, the media cover terrorist stories extensively, politicians fear-monger for exploitation, and then the candidates further fear-monger in a debate focused almost exclusively on terrorism. This debate happened a few days after 195 nations reached a historic climate deal in Paris, and scientists continue to urge the need to act now before it’s too late. America’s own military considers climate change a national security threat, and yet CNN didn’t think climate change was an important enough issue. Obama and others (although Bernie Sanders misspoke in the last debate) correctly extrapolated from a study that droughts exacerbated by climate change in the Middle East helped create some of the conditions that allow terrorists to thrive. Instead, the only thing the right does is create a straw man argument that makes Obama look especially stupid. To the uninformed, they make it sound like Obama thinks some bad weather makes people mad enough to become terrorists, which of course sounds ludicrous. The Republicans ignore the actual argument by simply misrepresenting it and dismissing the argument based on their perceived absurdity instead of evaluated evidence.
Everything ties back to style over substance. Talking about the climate deal, infrastructure, Wall Street banks, campaign finance reform, and so on are all boring. The media want exciting because that’s what the people want, and that excitement tends to blind people to the fact that the Republicans don’t want to avoid talking about policy because it’s boring. They want to hide their complete lack of substance, and jumping up and down about terrorism and Obama and Hillary and Benghazi serves as a great distraction. While Governor Chris Christie uses emotional appeals, fear-mongering, ad hominem attacks against Obama and Hillary Clinton while using snarl words, and his experience as proof that he’s correct about what he says, Christie’s state continues to suffer. He released a supposedly bold social security plan that would actually deplete the fund faster than if nothing changed. Yet the New Hampshire Union Leader still defends his social security plan, and there’s hardly any criticism of the paper or the plan. But Christie was in New Jersey and knew people at the towers on 9/11, which is sad and scary, so therefore everything he says about forfeiting our rights to the N.S.A. must be correct.
Christie serves as one example, but every candidate flooded the airwaves with their empty calorie rhetoric last night. Going through the transcripts reveal very little in terms of substance, but when the lights shine right and the crowd jeers and cheers while Trump makes faces, people overlook the lack of substance. When people think terrorism lurks constantly right around the corner and candidates talk like the apocalypse is coming, people overlook the lack of substance, forfeit their rights out of false comfort, and turn on each other in fits of paranoia. After everyone wakes up, media will be back to covering the big lines from last night until eventually moving onto whatever outrageous thing Trump says next. Pundits will grade the candidates on how they appeared and by their appeal to voters because there’s no substance to grade, but everyone will pretend like that’s normal.
At a certain point, people must realize that there’s a whole other major party in America, the Democrats. In fairness to media, the D.N.C. scheduled only a few debates and many at odd times, but the media obsesses over the circus, the clown car. That obsession also distracts people from actual issues. The focus winds up being on the horse race instead of the issues and what politicians are doing about them. It’s also how Republicans slip in outrageous pro-business riders onto must-pass legislation, by keeping people distracted with Ebola and Syrian refugees. That tactic also forces Democrats to spend most of their political capital defeating efforts such as defunding the Affordable Care Act and stopping the acceptance of Syrian refugees.
A number of Republicans barely have any policy positions on their websites, and most of them are nonsense. Many of those policies are never questioned, with most of the focus going to the most absurd policies of Trump. The media ought to visit the Democratic candidates’ websites. The general policy outlines do outweigh the detailed white papers released by Democrats so far, but they’re focused, ambitious, and progressive. Martin O’Malley has his 15 Goals to Build the American Dream. Bernie Sanders outlines 17 issues and Hillary Clinton outlines 24 issues. The candidates collectively have exciting and promising ideas, and as they start to become more detailed, media coverage and public debate could also help shape and detail these ideas. The Democratic debates show what this idea should look like. People may be passionate, but instead of insults, they have actual policy discussion and debate. Everyone learns something, maybe people’s minds change, and maybe some good policies become better and bad policies get rooted out before progressing further. We know that’s not how it will work though. We’ll focus on Trump, ignore the fact that many of the other candidates attend events hosted by fringe and hate groups, ignore the fact that trickle-down economics don’t work, really just ignore reality in general. The only focus on Democrats will be about Clinton and fake scandals, red-baiting with Sanders, or falsely equivocating Sanders with Trump.
The Bernie Sanders campaign sums up the problem in one sad quote.
ABC’s ‘World News Tonight’ has devoted 81 minutes to Donald Trump’s campaign so far this year compared to a mere 20 seconds on Sanders through the end of November. NBC’s “Nightly News” afforded 2.9 minutes of coverage to Sanders since January. The “CBS Evening News” provided viewers 6.4 minutes of coverage on the Vermont senator.
Style over substance and corporate media ratings shouldn’t be more important than truth and substance.