Presidential debates feeding into our generation’s affinity for entertainment over substance

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CNBC received a lot of heat for its GOP debate Oct. 28 due to the debate’s moderators. The moderators, three journalists, were deemed to be too harsh, unfair, unprofessional, and often times, irrelevant in their questioning.

As a journalism student in a Media and Politics course, I have been thinking about the moderator’s behaviors that night, and have come to the conclusion that it was poorly conducted. The debate was poorly controlled, lacked order, and came up short on substance. Since then, the debates on both sides have continued to receive negative feedback from the candidates and viewers. However, it is not entirely the media’s fault, or to be blamed on the moderators. It is our culture’s effect on journalism that is to blame.

Money runs most aspects of our country, including media and politics. Therefore, the networks hosting these debates are driven by profits, which are driven by ratings, which are driven by the viewers. In today’s social media obsessed society, virility has taken over the internet, memes are everywhere, and websites are designed to accommodate a four second attention span.

The algorithm Buzzfeed uses to monitor traffic is literally the same algorithm the Center for Disease Control uses to monitor the growth of diseases. Remember how the left shark at the 2015 Super Bowl was talked about more than the game? Donald Trump’s hair has been turned into GIFs, memes and mindless Buzzfeed listicles like, “The complete evolution of Donald Trump’s hair.” And the joke is on us, because this is the internet content that is getting the most shares, likes and hits. Our generation loves this stuff.

Then there is our obsession with reality television. The Kardashians have over 200 million followers on Instagram, far more than the president or really any person who is making real changes to our society (combined). This celebrity following is changing what we consider to be newsworthy or relevant. In addition, reality television effects what we want to see on TV. The shocking scenes, drama and moments that “go viral” in the shows we consume have created a new expectation when we watch TV.

When it comes time for a debate, the networks want viewers and the viewers want entertainment. So what happens? The moderators ask “gotcha” questions, pin the candidates against each other, and forget to focus on the substance, all in an attempt to keep people watching. A whole debate discussing political issues? The horror! Who would watch?!

It’s important to understand how the media has covered politics throughout history. Yellow journalism and sensationalism has been talked about since the mid 1890s. In my Communication Law course, we learned about another period of change in the mid 70s. A slew of court cases in the late 60s (New York Times v. Sullivan, The Pentagon Papers, Near v. Minnesota) were shaping freedom of expression. The Vietnam War and Nixon’s Watergate scandal had become major issues as well. For these reasons, and many more, tension between journalists and the government was at an all time high. Journalists were fighting the government and took a more watchdog, investigative approach. In fact, the first pulitzer prize for investigative journalism was awarded in the 60s.

Flash forward one decade later and there is, yet again, another change in political journalism. According to Matt Bai, political columnist and author of All The Truth Is Out, “politics went tabloid” in 1987 when four journalists decided to cover the affair of presidential candidate Gary Hart. The decision to treat this candidate differently, and publish information and photographs about his affair, changed the ethos of political journalism. The importance of ideas and world views changed into the importance of exposing a scandal. Never before were political figures asked about their possible affairs. Since then, the boundary has completely disappeared.

Of course, there is still information out there, as well as respectable journalists and stories that do inform and enlighten the public. It is truly a matter of how many people will read these articles, which are easily lost in the sea of mindless media publications. Our democracy thrives when people stay informed, and arguably cannot function without an informed public. James Madison said it best when he wrote the following:

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both.”

As a culture, we need to care about and understand politics, as well as national and international issues, because it is literally shaping our entire future. I admit, if it weren’t for my Media and Politics class, I would not read half of the information I do today. However, I have seen how important it is and realized that the political agendas and issues of today are very interesting, and actually entertaining, too.

I urge anyone reading this who feels the desire to expand their political minds to start reading up on it and seeking out the substance. I think you will be a better, more intelligent person who might be able to contribute thoughts and opinions to society that truly matter.

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