It’s been 35 years since Neil Postman’s oracular Amusing Ourselves to Death warned of what happens when politics becomes more about entertainment than substance.
Though cable news was in its infancy when Amusing Ourselves to Death was published -- just five years after CNN’s launch and 11 years before Fox News would come into existence -- cable’s eventual rise to ubiquity would have dire consequences for the world. “The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter,” wrote Postman, “but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining.” On how this plays out in TV news, he wrote:
No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure. That is why even on news shows which provide us daily with fragments of tragedy and barbarism, we are urged by the newscasters to “join them tomorrow.” What for? One would think that several minutes of murder and mayhem would suffice as material for a month of sleepless nights. We accept the newscasters' invitation because we know that the “news” is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun, so to say. Everything about a news show tells us this--the good looks and amiability of the cast, their pleasant banter, the exciting music that opens and closes the show, the vivid film footage, the attractive commercials--all these and more suggest that what we have just seen is no cause for weeping. A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis.
Postman died in 2003, but his prophetic work lives on with a number of his annoyances becoming industry standards within political media. (For example, one passage in the book remarked on the unfortunate focus on style over substance in the 1984 presidential debates.) If he viewed the election of “a former Hollywood movie actor” to the presidency to be a logical outcome for a world in which we are primarily informed via entertainment-driven media, the election of a reality TV game show host surely wouldn't have come as too much of a shock to him these years later.
The press will continue to operate as part of the entertainment business in the run-up to this year’s election. Here’s why.
It’s easy to find scapegoats for flawed journalism. In the wake of the 2016 election, many media outlets seemed all too eager to blame the misinformed public on internet hoaxes emanating from Macedonia or Russian influence campaigns. The truth is that editorial decisions made by many of these same media companies were geared to appeal to our desire to be entertained more than our need to be informed. Scandal quenched the thirst for entertainment much more effectively than policy coverage ever could, and in Donald Trump, American media outlets found themselves a politician light on policy but with a natural flair for the dramatic.
In April 2017, The New York Times Magazine published a lengthy profile of CNN President Jeff Zucker. In it, one paragraph about on-air panels devolving into shouting matches stands out as emblematic of the current media landscape.
CNN’s Last-Supper-size panels have become a hallmark of its political coverage. Many of the network’s most memorable moments during the campaign were protracted emotional face-offs among paid partisans.
As pure TV spectacle, arguments like this were reminiscent of the head-to-head battles pioneered a decade ago by ESPN’s daytime talk shows like “First Take,” which pitted sports pundits against one another in loud disagreements about the topic of the day. This was not a coincidence. Zucker is a big sports fan and from the early days of the campaign had spoken at editorial meetings about wanting to incorporate elements of ESPN’s programming into CNN’s election coverage. “The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way,” he told me.
It’s no wonder that Zucker hired Chris Cillizza, an embodiment of everything Postman warned against, to join him at CNN. The two of them share an understanding that news is about entertainment over education. Zucker, it should be noted, came from the world of entertainment where he ran NBC Universal and personally lobbied to land The Apprentice at the network.
It’s an attitude that was shared by Les Moonves, the disgraced former CBS executive chairman and CEO, who called Trump’s run for president in 2016 a “circus” but also said, “It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS.”
The natural result of this approach is a world in which journalists celebrate meaningless moments while ignoring the substance of any given event or action. For instance, in November, a Reuters report referred to the Trump impeachment hearings as “consequential, but dull,” while NBC lamented that they “lacked the pizazz necessary to capture public attention.” And earlier this month, CBS anchor Norah O’Donnell gushed over Trump’s distraction-laden State of the Union address, tweeting that he was “a master showman at his best.” This, of course, told us absolutely nothing about the content of his speech.
Politico recapped the speech in a video highlighting what it termed were “made-for-TV moments.”
Journalism cannot serve its role as an institutional check on the powerful if it is driven by a need to maximize profit. The press can’t be afraid to be boring, but changes in the industry’s economic landscape over the past 20 years show what happens if it can’t keep our attention. It’s for that reason that there are several Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists who’ve left the profession for different and more stable industries while Cillizza pulls paychecks for writing articles about “The mystery of Donald Trump's 'photoshopped' tan-face picture” and “8 very good things that happened to Donald Trump this week.”
In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman argued that as society shifted to rely on TV news for information and entertainment, we risked becoming a “trivial culture” like the dystopia described in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, warning that “the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”
Restoring the press as an institutional check on the powerful will be a team effort, and it’s important to start now.
The Jeff Zuckers of the world aren’t about to abandon their politics-as-entertainment approach to journalism anytime soon, especially if nothing changes about industry incentives.
In 2016, media coverage of Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton skewed heavily in favor of horse race reporting -- coverage of who is winning and why. According to a study by Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, horse race coverage made up a stunning 42% of news reports. Controversies made up 17% of coverage, with policy taking up just 10%. Even more worrying is that in that small portion of policy reporting, a large chunk focused on Trump’s immigration proposals -- almost certainly as the result of the inflammatory way in which he presented radical and unrealistic proposals like banning Muslims from entering the U.S. or building a southern border wall at zero cost to taxpayers.
“Clinton’s alleged scandals accounted for 16 percent of her coverage--four times the amount of press attention paid to Trump’s treatment of women and sixteen times the amount of news coverage given to Clinton’s most heavily covered policy position,” the reports authors note.
Mainstream journalists covered the 2016 presidential election like a soap opera, not like a competition between two competing visions for the country. It’s hard to believe that this year’s coverage will be any different.