Live from Detroit: Presidential debates as game show

Why We Wrote This

The presidential race is more and more a reality TV show: punchy digs at debates and sought-after viral moments. In the age of Trump, is there any alternative but to play this game?

Paul Sancya/AP
Workers get the stage ready for the Democratic primary debate hosted by CNN Tuesday, July 30, 2019, at the Fox Theatre in Detroit.

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As contenders for the Democratic nomination take the debate stage in Detroit, lower-tier candidates are already scrambling to secure spots in the next debate – which will require meeting a higher threshold of donors and in the polls – by trying to manufacture viral moments with strategies that border on the bizarre. 

Thus we have New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand playing beer pong (with water) to try to entice donors to give $1, and Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan offering the chance to do yoga with him in exchange for a $3 donation. 

In some ways, it’s the same old substance-versus-style dilemma: Either focus on cut-and-dried issues and risk putting your audience to sleep, or amp up the entertainment and risk turning the process into a distorted version of “The Bachelor.” Yet with a president who literally spent years working in reality television – and whose divisive style is nothing if not attention-grabbing – that dilemma seems more pronounced than ever.

“It’s all gotten more gamefied, more silly, more outrageous, more outlandish – and much more deadly serious, all at once,” says Regina Lawrence, director of the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon in Portland. 

The latest installment of “Who Wants To Be The President?” returns this week, as 20 contenders for the Democratic nomination take the debate stage Tuesday and Wednesday in Detroit. 

Bars across the country are promoting debate watch parties, complete with drink specials and HD screens. Pundits are touting top match-ups: Will former Vice President Joe Biden punch back against California Sen. Kamala Harris? Will Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders stake his claim against Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts as the favorite of the liberal left? 

Lower-tier candidates are already scrambling to secure spots on the next debate stage – which will require meeting a higher threshold of 130,000 donors and 2% standing in the polls – by trying to manufacture viral moments online with strategies that border on the bizarre. 

Thus we have New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand playing beer pong (with water) to try to entice donors to give $1 to her campaign, and Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan offering the chance to do yoga with him in exchange for a $3 donation. Entrepreneur and philanthropist Andrew Yang drew hundreds of thousands of new followers when he offered $1,000 a month for a year to a lucky Twitter fan who retweeted and followed him before July 4.

Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke has yet to reclaim the viral success he enjoyed during the midterms, when he came remarkably close to taking incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz’s seat. Recently, Mr. O’Rourke has taken to challenging his staff to push-up contests at airports and live-streaming dinner-table conversations with families in Flint, Michigan.

“Our presidential nomination system looks to be a mash up of ‘Survivor,’ where you’re voting people off the island, and March Madness basketball brackets,” says Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and author of multiple books on presidential communication. 

In some ways, it’s the same substance-versus-style dilemma that politics and media have struggled with for decades: Either focus on cut-and-dried issues and risk losing your audience, or amp up the entertainment value and risk turning the political process into some distorted version of “The Bachelor.” 

Yet with a president who literally spent years working in reality television – and whose divisive style is nothing if not attention-grabbing – that dilemma seems more pronounced than ever. And what’s at stake now may be not just who gets to lead the country, but the dignity of the process itself.

“It’s all gotten more gamefied, more silly, more outrageous, more outlandish – and much more deadly serious, all at once,” says Regina Lawrence, director of the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon in Portland, where she specializes in political communication. 

But is this really the only avenue left in politics? In the age of Trump and ever-shortening attention spans, is the only choice to take part in the spectacle? 

Make some noise

On the surface, the answer seems to be yes. The rise of 24-hour cable news, the success of partisan talk radio, and the advent of social media are all mile markers on the road to the 2020 reality competition. 

In 2018, according to the Pew Research Center, newspaper circulation hit its lowest point in nearly 80 years, local TV network audiences continued shrinking, and even online news sites saw traffic plateau, as more Americans said they rely on social media for their news. But Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC saw their combined revenue grow by 4% from the previous year – a total increase of about a third since 2015.

CNN, which is hosting this week’s debates, aired an hour-long live lottery that breathlessly revealed the lineup for the two-night event. Along with the live drawing, the special featured game-show music, a panel of commentators, and multiple camera angles for every name pulled out of the box. 

The apparent lesson: “You have to make some noise or you won’t be viable for much longer,” Professor Farnsworth says. 

Yet noise doesn’t provide voters with what they need to make an informed decision about the issues that drive an election, or who is best suited to lead the country. And it often fails to leave a lasting impression: Mr. O’Rourke, Senator Gillibrand, and Mr. Yang have yet to break through in the polls, and despite “The Draw,” CNN that night still came in third behind Fox News’s Tucker Carlson and MSNBC.

During the first round of debates, some candidates tried to stand out by showing off their language skills. But all that ignited was a meme of New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s face as Mr. O’Rourke said his first words in Spanish. It was Senator Harris’s obviously practiced attack against Mr. Biden on the issue of race and busing that led to a bump in the polls.

News consumers might tune in to, and even enjoy, the candidates’ ceaseless hunt for the perfect viral moment, says Joy Mayer, founder of Trusting News, a nonprofit that aims to revive public trust in journalism. (Note: The Christian Science Monitor has previously partnered with Trusting News.) All that does, however, is contribute to the cynical sense that all politics is theater, and that journalists are either theater critics – or part of the show, she says. 

“If you were to put 20 people in a room and ask them to develop a nomination system that gave us people most capable of being president, it would look nothing like this,” says Professor Farnsworth, who spent 10 years as a working journalist. “We are all the poorer as citizens as a result.” 

Brynn Anderson/AP
Democratic presidential candidates at the June 27, 2019 debate in Miami, from left: former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Rep. Eric Swalwell of California.

Doritos vs. a salad

There’s some good news. For one, there’s plenty of overlap between what the public wants the news media to do and what journalists think their role is, according to 2018 surveys by the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Accuracy and fairness top the list; making the news entertaining, not so much. 

“In theory, there’s real hunger for coverage that makes [audiences] smarter and that feels fair and contextual and deep,” Ms. Mayer says. 

Trusting News exists because they believe in that appetite and have partnered with other groups to innovate in alternative coverage. There’s growing momentum, for instance, behind community-style journalism that directly asks the public what they’re interested in and structures reporting around their answers – what media critic Jay Rosen calls a “citizens agenda” model of campaign coverage. Some local news outlets have experimented with reporter mission statements in a bid to help staff be transparent with audiences about what they cover and why. 

Some critics say the town halls that Fox News and CNN have hosted with primary candidates are just PR-generated “pseudo-events” that play into the reality-show farce that is 2020. Still, they also give candidates – both top-tier and lesser-known – a chance to get airtime they wouldn’t otherwise have, says Democratic strategist Dan Kanninen.

“They have an opportunity to make their claim and stake a vision out about where they want to take the country,” he says. “That’s a core function of this primary field in a way that wasn’t always the case.”

There’s no denying that the political circus, and the search for viral relevance, takes precedence in a majority of 2020 coverage, especially at this stage. But more optimistic political observers say it doesn’t have to be this way forever. 

“‘Nobody’ is a fallacy journalists fall into: ‘No one wants [substantive] coverage. We do that and nobody pays attention,’” says Professor Lawrence at the University of Oregon. “But when we put our citizen hat back on, a lot of us in the public do want something more.”

“There’s always going to be a disconnect between what people say they want and what they consume,” Ms. Mayer adds. “If there’s a bag of Doritos on the counter, it’s real hard to resist if you like Doritos. But that doesn’t mean that if there’s a salad there that’s prepared and delicious, that people won’t eat it.”

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