Earlier this week, CNN aired a debate between far-left Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and conservative Senator Ted Cruz of Texas on the topic of healthcare. During a dead timeslot for the network, the ratings proved to be a nice boost, especially considering the drop that most news networks are experiencing now that the election is over. To be honest, I didn’t watch it. After countless debates during the primary season on both the Democratic and Republican side, not to mention the general election debates and evening specials, I’m burned out on political televised events.
News networks like CNN, MSNBC, and Fox are seeing their viewership drop from highs in the fall because the drama has moved out of the political arena and back where it belongs: on scripted shows airing on evening television. This is probably why CNN sponsored a debate: in an effort to keep Americans watching the news, they needed some drama to pull viewers back in, even if it was an artificially constructed one. Hence, a healthcare debate between two diametrically different Senators, with no stated purpose or useful result. After spending over a year at each other’s throats, CNN thought Americans wanted a new battle between Right and Left, and were more than happy to provide the material. The next morning, predictably, both sides of the debate published their own spin. On the left-wing site Alternet, the headline boasted “5 Times Bernie Sanders Mopped the Floor with Ted Cruz During Their CNN Debate.” On the conservative site Townhall, the headline was “BOOM: Watch Ted Cruz Shut Down Bernie Sanders.” Editors at both sites knew what their audience wanted: a victory for “their” side, and they delivered. That’s the nature of the news business in 2017, which is why anyone hoping for a change in rhetoric after a divisive 2016 election season is sure to be disappointed.
Media observers and commentators have bemoaned the fact that in the past year we’ve witnessed the reality television-ization of our political process. No longer are we capable of civilized, nuanced debate and discussion. Now, more than ever, the only thing news consumers seem interested in are entertaining sound bites; complex policy debates are routinely reduced to fifteen second zingers lobbed from one side to another. Before the announcement of President Donald Trump’s pick for a replacement for Supreme Court justice, for example, the pundit class compared the entire exercise to the “rose ceremony” in the reality dating show, The Bachelor.
While ratings on the night of the Sanders-Cruz debate were particularly good for CNN considering the dead zone during which the debate aired, the vast majority of non-politically obsessed Americans decided not to tune in. Watching politicians fight got old for most of us sometime during the summer of last year; we don’t need to watch it for entertainment post-election –and I say that as a rabidly politically obsessed American.
In an era where media entities like CNN are desperate to paint themselves as the serious alternative to the fake news which they claim led to the rise of President Trump, promoting an evening of pointless political sparring as entertainment sets the dialogue in our country back into 2016 territory, not beyond it. While many in the media claim that fake news led to the rise of a reality television star as President, polling into Americans’ faith in the media tells an entirely different story. Americans have viewed all news as fake for sometime, largely because of the blatantly obvious biases of those entrusted to deliver it and news organizations’ need for clicks and views in order to survive. If networks like CNN want to be taken seriously as sources of news in a post 2016-world, they might want to reevaluate how they broadcast the news and engage in some corporate soul-searching. Sparring matches over healthcare with big-name Senators might make for good TV and ratings to match, but that’s about it. If you were hoping 2017 would bring back an appreciation for the seriousness of our political process by our mainstream news media, brace yourself for disappointment.