It’s close! It’s so close! Romney’s ahead! No, Gingrich is ahead! Oh, here comes Santorum! But can any of them beat Obama? It’s so exciting, I can’t stand it.
The sporting style of American mainstream media coverage of political “races” may be fun for some people. But it’s also irresponsibly dumb because of the difference between elections and horse races.
In a real horse race, you watch the competitors do what they were only ever meant to do: just run. When the race is over, the bettors collect their winnings and everyone goes home.
But political races are only preliminary events to what the winners are really expected to do: govern, their primary purpose. In these races, you are not watching the competitors do what you really want them to do (again, govern), you are listening to them vaguely promise what they will try to do if and after they win.
Imagine an American Idol where instead of actually performing, the contestants took turns promising the audience to sing and dance really well if and after they won and the celebrity judges just speculated on the home audience’s vote.
Would you watch that show? Well, we’re all watching that show right now, except it’s called American President. And it’s just plain civically nutrition-free sensationalism.
I’d like to see another kind of election show. It would look beyond nail-biting, ratings-grabbing, finish-line scenarios and, instead, objectively and responsibly assess the realistic consequences of the political platforms presented by the most articulate candidates.
In other words, I want a show that would give us not useless, racy poll projections but information to help us decide which candidate’s agenda would best serve our civic needs after the balloons drop on election day.
Today’s American President show only benefits those few who actually bet money on the election and can collect their winnings right after the vote. For the vast majority of us non-bettors watching the thrilling “down-to-the-wire” coverage in the mainstream media, we won’t really know if we are winners or losers for years to come—no matter who moves into the White House.
Steven Doloff is a professor of humanities and media studies at Pratt Institute. His essays and op-ed pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Chicago Sun-Times.
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