Columns, Opinions

Simshauser ’20: Making sport of politics

By
Staff Columnist
Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Turn on any cable news channel, and you are likely to be inundated with punditry. This has always been a staple of news coverage but has especially increased since the 2016 election. The structure of election cycles is conducive to punditry — there is no true referendum for an incorrect position until the actual election night. A ​Washington Post article​ neatly encapsulated the paradoxical nature of punditry dominating cable news: “The leading news networks — CNN, Fox, MSNBC — don’t report the news as much as they talk and speculate endlessly about it.”

The appetite for incessant punditry was realized during the 2016 election, and the factors that enabled it have persisted into the Trump presidency. There are just as many narratives, personal dramas and unverifiable predictions to make as there were during the election cycle — unsurprisingly, this has resulted in similarly ubiquitous punditry, further degrading these ostensibly informative news channels. One distinct feature of this discussion-dominated coverage, however, is how much the panel debates on cable news have come to resemble those on sports talk shows. Befitting our partisan moment, political squabbling now imitates discussion of sports.

In both aesthetic style and rhetorical manner, the similarities are striking. This is by design — CNN President Jeff Zucker has spoken explicitly about his desire to incorporate elements of ESPN’s programming into CNN’s. “The idea that politics is sport is undeniable,” Zucker said ​in a 2017 interview​. “We understood that and approached it that way.” He instituted changes at CNN with the direct goal of imitating ESPN’s format. ESPN has “College GameDay,” where it puts a live set outside a stadium, with plenty of fans in the background. Under Zucker’s direction, CNN built similar “pregame sets” outside debate halls, ornamented with raucous crowds. The takeaway, logically, is to equate a presidential debate with a college football game — both are events with fans for both sides eagerly waiting outside while a zero-sum competition ensues inside.

While the changing nature of pre-debate coverage reveals ESPN’s influence on CNN, the implications may seem fairly narrow, given that debates are limited to a presidential campaign cycle. It is in the shift toward daytime punditry where the influence of ESPN’s programming has found far more traction. This is hardly unique to CNN; as punditry increasingly becomes the cable news norm, nearly all panels seem to imitate the sets of ESPN’s talk shows, such as “First Take.” There is a moderator affixed to the center of the table, and he or she is symmetrically flanked by opposing pundits, ready to face off in loud disagreement.

It is not surprising that cable news, like ESPN, aims to foster arguments. These often make for television spectacle and draw even more eyeballs when circulated online. But the problems with covering politics like sports are manifold. Firstly, the focus of pundits is quite removed from the functional aspects of governance and more about juicy television storylines. They concentrate on battle lines and warring characters rather than actual policy issues; the Trump White House and its staffing turnstile is perfect for this coverage environment.

Where this is most problematic is in regard to discussion of policy. When the locus does move to a piece of legislation, discussion of it is framed in the structure of narratives and of “winning and losing.” Just as Stephen A. Smith opines on whether a team will win or lose a particular game, pundits debate whether Democrats won or lost on a particular bill. This fails to edify the viewing audience about specific policy and constrains the significance of a law to the political realm. When covering the attempts to repeal Obamacare this summer, pundits spoke in zero-sum political terms rather than focusing on the functional aspects of the bill, which would have caused around 20 million people to lose health insurance. Sports-style punditry often fails to cover policy, and when it does, it depicts legislation as a partisan tug-of-war — thus ignoring the tangible ramifications of the bills themselves.

The idea of applying the “politics as sport” mantra to cable news is most problematic because it intuitively pits two parties against one another. Pundits are often paid partisans with a clear agenda despite appearing on the show under the guise of relative objectivity. Those who become regulars on a show are simply playing a role: A pundit hired as a Trump supporter will always take that side of the argument — they will be the reliable Trump apologist while the rest of the panel condemns him.

What the viewer gets, then, is political coverage in the most tribally structured way. This is even done visually, with the panels often being bifurcated by the moderator, providing viewers with a visual cue that lets them know which team the pundits are on. Once these arguments naturally devolve into shouting matches, the viewer knows who to root for and ignores points from the other side; cable news panels end up validating and reinforcing existing views.

Ultimately, the shift toward ESPN-stylized news coverage exacerbates political tribalism, fails to inform the viewer and depicts the political process as a team sport with winners and losers. The ever-present punditry across the cable news channels renders them useless as vehicles of information; they are performances, with political commentary playing a tangential role.

Derek Simshauser ’20 can be reached at derek_simshauser@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.