Wednesday, September 14, 2011

CNN/Tea Party Debate: Sexing up the GOP race and making $$$$

Debate: a contention by words or arguments (Webster's Dictionary)

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Following last week's "nonsensical" Republican debate, the jointly organized CNN/TEA PARTY debate advanced the GOP presidential field of crazy and fueled questions that I could only file away into the "what the shit is this?" compartment in my brain.

A great deal has been speculated about the unusual marriage between CNN and the Tea Party. CNN itself has put efforts into explaining why it partnered with the party. Even Tea Party activists have noted that the debate, sponsored by the conservative Heritage Fund, is a situation of "strange bedfellows." Admittedly, it is a legitimate claim that the "Tea Party" has been a major influence in American politics over the last year and that voters should be informed about how this group will affect the election process. The point of the debate, Wolf Blitzer explained, "Its important that the American public knows where the candidates agree on the substantive issues and where they disagree. We want everyone watching to emerge from this debate more informed about these eight people who each want to become the President of the United States." 

However, the CNN/Tea Party debate has come off as a pure PR spectacle that only loosely resembled a debate, in which the aim is to offer voters a chance to become informed about important political issues and the candidates' actual positions. Take for example, CNN's preamble to the debate: a slick introduction that seems suited for revving up a crowd before a sporting event, cues which the audience diffused into wild applause and booing.

Considering that CNN's follow-up analysis and its own video of what some producer somewhere approved of as being the "greatest moments" of the ordeal, this debate might as well have been billed like a wrestling match: "Romney vs. Perry: the talking-points BLOW OUT of the year!" Because, basically, before anyone has the chance to begin to pick apart the candidate's talking points from one another, the scene has already been set. CNN even gave all the candidates catchy names, like characters in a Tarantino film. By the time Wolf Blitzer opens his mouth, you already know who the "best" candidates are ... and we are told to anticipate a rhetorical sparring match between them. This becomes what the debate is about, and the picky "my state is better than yours," "you're contradicting what you wrote in your book," side-arguments become the grounds for deciding which of the obviously favored candidates won. 
While presidential debates have been well regulated since 1987 by the Commission on Presidential Debates, primary debates are another matter entirely. The primary debates have clearly devolved into a complete circus ring that simultaneously exposes the moneyed interests major media outlets have in peddling the increasingly sexed-up debates and the complete joke our national political discourse has become.  

Unfortunately, there is also very little incentive for the major networks to keep this upcoming primary season from being anything other than a charade. The Project in Excellence for Journalism notes that the 2008 presidential campaign translated into record breaking advertising revenues for all three leading cable news outlets: FNC, MSNBC, and CNN.

The Tea Party has been an absolute boon to news industries. Sure other stories make the news. Last year, for example, the most covered stories were the Haiti earthquake, the shaky economy, and passage of health care reform. However, as PEJ notes, Tea Party coverage throughout the major media outlets and platforms "accounted for twice the campaign coverage (13%) as the impact of the economy and health care on the election combined. Much of the fascination was with the most controversial candidates. For instance, tea party candidate Christine O’Donnell, who was soundly defeated, generated more election coverage between Labor Day and Election Day than anyone other than President Obama."

Taking into account that the 2010 midterm elections was the second-most reported on story in that year, the problem with the mainstream media's overall agenda setting become apparent. For those of you unfamiliar with the term "agenda setting," fret not. I'm not alluding to some secretive group that chooses its stories carefully in order to brainwash you. That's Fox News Channel. Agenda setting refers to the ability of the news industries to affect the views and attitudes of the public by placing more news value on some stories over others. Another way I like to think of this is the saying, "the news doesn't tell you what to think, it tells you what to think about."

As the CNN/Tea Party debate demonstrates, the Tea Party and its lopsided coverage still dominates the airwaves, and yet lends very little to the public's understanding of the heavily astro-turfed movement. There is also little doubt that this primary season will be highly profitable for the cable news outlets, as long as they continue to promote the sensational, and tow propaganda vaguely disguised as a debate. 

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