Author: Andrew G. White IV, Ph.D. student in Multi-Sector Communications program
Every two years, Americans turn our attention to a stage of candidates who aim to be the leader of the country. Between that time and the election, we watch, listen, discuss, take sides, switch sides, and in some cases, drool over the interactions between contestants and other participants across the various platforms through which the American public is introduced to them. Moreover, we turn to social media and, in silent judgement, read the views of people who dare to publicly express their opinions.
It is often said that the two areas that are not to be discussed in polite company are religion and politics. These two topics are so overly polarizing that discussing them with people on which you’d like to remain good terms is generally against the rules. The rise of social media has balkanized us to a great extent by amplifying the loudest voices and often manipulating perceptions of public opinion. This has been quite effective in driving many reasonable people from the public square of civic and civil debate. The impact of our joint inability to interact at this level continues segregate Americans into separate political realities. This enables individuals to selectively cast doubt and deny all claims contrary to their preferred perspective.
To that end, and for quite some time, I have been hard-pressed to understand why the political process in America has been reduced to an all-out bully brawl which seemingly centers around the concept of infotainment. The situation today is different from the political contests of old because of the pervasive scale of partisan media and its dissemination alongside disinformation. The intensification of these challenges has been hastened by the rise of an increasingly imbalanced economy amid a fragmented media market.
If the current approach to the media-related aspects American political process proceeds along its present course, I have diminishing hope that it will be to the benefit of the country and am concerned about the relationships we will have with each other. This sentiment is unchanged as it pertains to our relationships with the rest of the world which continues to show its ability to leapfrog and infrastructurally, economically, and diplomatically. To proceed in a direction that is more consistent with what could be referred to as a ‘civilized presentation of politics’, perhaps major media might consider a C-SPAN-type structure where quiet discussion can take place and strategies aimed at enhancing the country might actually be heard.
If one takes note of the major media platforms such as CNN, MSNBC, and Fox, it is not difficult to recognize that a great percentage of the time is filled by commercials. The other percentage of the time, agendas of the respective stations, themselves, take front and center. Regardless of whether you are listening to the anchor or a dialogue between varying sides of an issue, there is evident framing that takes place to guide your perspective one way or the other. At the same time, experts and pundits are conveniently and consistently placed in a position to market their never-ending slews of publications to viewers; all while discussing the woes of the economy.
In considering an alternative to the infotainment-driven approach to the presentation of political news today and its impact on our awareness of the plans of our current and potential leaders, reviewing a paraphrasing of C-SPAN’s mission offers a potential template for a path forward:
The mission of C-SPAN is to provide our audience access to the live…proceedings of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate…all without editing, commentary or analysis and with a balanced presentation of points of view; To provide elected and appointed officials…a direct conduit to the audience without filtering or otherwise distorting their points of view… To employ production values that accurately convey the business of government rather than distract from it.
Reading this, I am reminded of Neil Postman’s (1985) Amusing Ourselves to Death.
In it, Postman used the example of the Presidential debates in the time of Abraham Lincoln. Noting that these debates ran for hours and consisted of uninterrupted presentation, followed by uninterrupted rebuttal for both sides, Postman’s (1985) point was not only that the viewers of these debates were able to pay attention to these exchanges but, more importantly, that they were able to remember and quote key points in full; a byproduct of being trained to read and memorize biblical scripture.
If Postman published his book in 1985 and was convinced that the American attention span was lacking in comparison to Lincoln’s time, what would he say now and how would he perceive our political process today? Would he take issue with the fact that there are commercial breaks between candidate exchanges? What would his stance be on the role that commentators play, not only after but sometimes during speeches and every other presentation of information that comes from political leaders to the citizens of this country; especially when they interpret and ‘clarify’ the meaning of what was just heard? Moreover, and finally, what would his take be when presented with the reality that ‘what was just heard’ is different depending on what channel the viewer selected? With relative certainty, one expects that his reaction would be less than pleased.
In the context of Presidential elections, if the role of the news media is to truly ‘inform’ the American public about the plans and qualifications of their potential leaders, taking a C-Span-type approach might be a prudent step. This time of ours is filled with an infinite number of pathways through which messages, and their meaning, can not only be transmitted but also be skewed. Organizations in a position to present information at the most macro levels, need to seek out opportunities to facilitate genuine, unfettered exchange between sender and receiver; that is, between the candidate and his or her present or potential constituency. These exchanges need to be conducted without subjecting the listener to unsolicited commentary and should also be able to be presented without interpretive proxy.
In response to the question under consideration, perhaps a model of C-SPAN’s approach is one that major media would be well advised to follow.
 The word contestant is used to add emphasis to the fact that our approach to politics has become like a game show where contestants play for money and prizes. Game shows are meant to entertain viewers and not to inform them. They are not an appropriate venue for the presentation of political discourse, nor or they a space intended for current and political leaders to share important information with their respective constituencies.
 Avalon, J. (2019, November 22). Confronting the cult of Partisan Media (opinion) – CNN. Retrieved March 26, 2022, from https://www.cnn.com/2019/11/22/opinions/partisan-media-confronting-political-division-avlon/index.html
 Postman, N. (1985). Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business. New York, NY, NY: Penguin Books.