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Opinion

Christine O'Donnell and the rise of cable TV politics: Why we're responsible

So long as sensational programming drives TV news ratings, outlandish figures will stick around. You vote with your remote – for either real solutions to complicated issues or snarky comments and snappy sound bites.

By / October 19, 2010



Portland, Ore.

During the past 18 years, frequent talk show guest and current “tea party”-backed US Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell has made a lot of statements – such as denying the separation of church and state in America – that I consider ridiculous.

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But she and I are on the same wavelength about one subject: why people like her are able to use TV as a springboard to fame.

Having worked on both sides of the camera, I know why news producers are attracted to ambitious, compelling, even zany characters: Viewers enjoy the show and a big audience brings good ratings.

Sometimes I feel like a relic of some lost civilization. I grew up watching elected officials who practiced civility. I got my broadcasting license in an era of strict rules about what not to say into a live microphone. Policy debates focused on content and critical thinking. But today, ideas have been replaced by talking points. Snarky comments are prized elements in the battle to “control the narrative” and “push back” against opposing views. Public discourse has been transformed into the spoken-word equivalent of cage fighting.

You may not like the type of candidates this system is producing, but no one should claim to be surprised. The audience gets what it clamors for.

In a recent interview, Ms. O’Donnell recalled how her on-camera adventures began. “I was a Bush-Quayle youth leader, happened to talk to the producer of CNN on the convention floor, and she liked what I happened to say.” And suddenly, as the saying goes, her crowded hour had begun. Any career counselor will confirm that a good first impression can open lots of doors to success. “That’s how it works; that’s how it still works,” O’Donnell said. “You get on one producer’s Rolodex, and ... it just kind of spreads exponentially.”

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