Media: Enough with the polls and distractions; talk about issues

A woman pulls Donald Trump's hair at an event to prove it's real. This passes for

A woman pulls Donald Trump’s hair at an event to prove it’s real. This passes for “political news” during a presidential election cycle.

Like the holiday season, the presidential election cycle seems to begin earlier and earlier every go-round. And also like the holiday season, the election brings to the surface all the lowest points of our media, society and culture.

The next president won’t be decided until Nov. 8, 2016 and the coverage is already relentless. It’s difficult to turn on TV news or visit any news site, no matter its political affiliation or lack thereof, without seeing stories about the 2016 election. What a shame that for the next 14 months we’ll be forced to endure so much exposure to our national mediocrity.

Much of the coverage is dominated by Donald Trump, a defiantly mediocre man in every aspect but his hubris. Dismissed as a joke candidate when he announced, the unwavering support his base gives him has led Frank Luntz, a prominent pollster for the GOP, to declare, “Nothing disqualifies Trump.” No matter how many embarrassments he suffers through his inability to answer questions, spotty personal record and racist remarks, Trump continues to lead the Republican pack.

That’s surely an interesting insight into the psyche of the GOP base, but it also exemplifies what’s wrong with American political coverage. It’s become almost entirely about the polls. They’re so detailed now that they can answer questions like, for instance, who Mike Huckabee supporters would go to were Huckabee to drop out of the race and what percentage of Donald Trump supporters believe President Obama was born in another country.

Absolutely none of this wonky, day-to-day polling data is of any value to ordinary Americans. By focusing on it so strongly and presenting the election the way sportscasters might preview a football game, the media displays its contempt for the intelligence of average Americans and lack of concern for the future of this country.

The 2012 election cycle really highlighted the meaningless of following polls. Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, and Michele Bachmann all took turns as the likely prospective Republican nominee, and as each moved to the top of the polls, the media gave them extensive coverage. Ultimately, Mitt Romney won the nomination and lost the election. Hundreds of millions of dollars went into campaign donations, news-gathering and polling among the Republican field alone. Every last cent is money that’s down the drain, squandered in profit or ratings.

Graphics like these are the bread and butter of political journalism. At least it's reassuring to see Sanders getting ahead.

Graphics like these are the bread and butter of political journalism. At least it’s reassuring to see Sanders getting ahead.

Polls are there not for the benefit of Americans, but for the benefit of the candidates. It’s a marketing service provided freely to presidential campaigns by the media. Sometimes they are overt in this goal, as in a Time piece boasting the headline, “How 2016 Candidates Can Win Over Millennials” and offering candidates a “few handy tips on capturing a generation of influencers.” The article, written by millennials – that most cherished group among politicians and corporations alike – advises candidates to, among other things, post Vines and not exaggerate statistics.

In other words, the piece offers candidates marketing advice. Marketing is a process of convincing rational people to make irrational decisions. Even when it’s truthful, it’s manipulative, and it’s important to understand that this drives our entire political process. For our media to be participating in it at such a high level, at a time when there are so many important issues to discuss, is an embarrassment.

Then there’s Bernie Sanders. Despite the media’s best efforts to ridicule and diminish his candidacy, his message is striking a chord with ordinary Americans. He’s gaining on Hillary Clinton in important early primary states, beating her in New Hampshire and looking more poised than ever to take the nomination altogether.

Although this is surely good news, there’s still plenty of room for cynicism in the fact that the media’s biggest Bernie Sanders stories have to do with his sellout crowds and his poll numbers. Even these stories are often presented with bewilderment or exasperation. Rare is it that the mainstream media takes a meaningful look at why people are responding to his message or what his message even is in the first place. Instead, Sanders frequently has to overcome the media asking him about Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers or her haircut.

When the media does move from talking about polls to issues, it’s often just as embarrassing. Trump’s cartoonish proposals, like having Mexico pay for a wall on our southern border, attract a great deal of focus. But Sanders’s anti-corporate positions are anathema to the profit-driven media. They’re much more comfortable talking about Trump’s wall than democratic socialism – when they get around to talking policy at all. An issues-oriented politician like Sanders is what this country needs. Donald Trump is what our short attention spans and ratings-starved media allow us to have.

Presidential elections get more bloated and expensive every cycle. All the polling, meaningless data and ridiculous stunts show the coverage for what it is: a big hustle, where the media and the politicians laugh their way to the bank and Americans are left scratching their heads when the election is over and nothing has improved.

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