The Idiot Box Election

by Paul Mackintosh

Whatever the outcome on November 8th, this year’s presidential election should be regarded as the first Idiot Box Election in the history the United States. This is primarily because, for the first time, the presidential candidate of a major party became the candidate entirely due to his success on television. Donald Trump had never held public office, had never run for public office, and his career as a businessman had been a mixture of modest successes and numerous failures. What put him in the position to be the Republican nominee was, quite simply, his success as a television personality.

This unprecedented and surprising development has had a sort of domino effect. The mainstream media’s coverage of presidential elections in the United States, whether in print or on the airwaves, has always been a mix of news and entertainment; but the framework for this coverage has been largely traditional, and the specifics reflect a negotiated compromise between the demands of professional politics and professional journalism. This year, the Trump campaign challenged not just the so-called “establishment,” but this traditional framework set by journalism and politics as well. And the framework collapsed. Mass media journalism in America lost its professional bearings, at least temporarily, and by the time it realized what had happened it was mostly unable or unwilling to reclaim them.

Trump, who knows the rules of successful television better than most politicians and journalists, and seemed to understand what he was doing to the tradition while editors and the electorate were still trying to figure things out, imposed what might be called a Nonstop Reality Television model on election coverage. The news media on television, on radio, and even in print, found itself conveying the nonstop narratives that each candidate and/or advocacy group provided, without time for professional validation and control, much less professional decision-making about what was “news”. Therefore, even at a modest distance, the race seemed to take on the peculiar form of a Championship Wrestling match.

To be fair, the seeds for an Idiot Box Election were sown less by the popularity of the former movie actor Ronald Reagan, in the 1980s — he had served two terms as Governor of California before being a nominee for national office — than by a natural marriage of point-counterpoint television journalism and round-the-clock cable television news in the 1990s. The Internet played a role as well, so that by the turn-of-the-century the value of journalistic real estate was rapidly falling to zero. Gone were the days when a story had to be newsworthy in the eyes of seasoned professional to make either the precious 30 minutes of an evening news program, or the limited pages of a prestigious newspaper. That said, 2016 may have been the first time we’ve witnessed the most prestigious news outlets emulating the least prestigious — the latter more suitable, after all, for a Championship Wrestling match.

Unfortunately, the damage done by an Idiot Box Election can’t be undone by having the professional not-from-television candidate win. Arguably, the US desperately needed this election to restore some confidence in government, to establish some consensus about priorities and issues, and to debate some reasonable strategies for moving the country forward. This election didn’t begin to accomplish any of these things. If it wasn’t quite as fake as a Championship Wrestling match, it was sadly just as ineffective in setting a path for the future — it only leaves people ready to tune in for the next bout of fakery, or too uninterested to bother — and it leaves politics as well as journalism badly in need of repair.


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