I will spare you the full joke, but the punch line is, “If you can’t govern, you had better entertain!”
There are many important reforms to our presidential selection process that should be adopted — curbing the corrupting influence of money, ending the Electoral College, making voting a constitutional right. But none are so urgently needed as a restoration of the doctrines of equal time and fairness to media coverage of our electoral contests.
There was a time not long ago when fairness and equal time in the coverage of candidates and the conduct of candidate debates was the law of the land. These time-honored doctrines have been abandoned over the past 15 years, and the slide of democracy into the media-entertainment abyss has been fast and furious.
Most Americans who do know about the doctrines focus on how their end paved the way for the rise of conservative media — particularly talk radio. But less acknowledged is the effect of the doctrines’ demise on the nomination contests of our political parties. As a result, the media’s entertainment imperative has displaced the parties’ consensus-building imperative — in both primary and general elections.
Under this imperative, candidates gain traction and greater media attention by alienating as many people as they entertain. (And if they are really good at dividing people, the Russians come into our game and help from afar through social media troll farms.)
Consider the confession of Les Moonves, the former head of CBS. In early 2016, he was asked about the network’s inordinate coverage of Donald Trump during the primaries — a deluge that would continue through Election Day. Recall the uninterrupted start-to-finish coverage of his rallies; recall the disproportionate speaking time he received in debates. Under the old rules, no network would have gotten away with giving so much attention to one candidate. But, as Moonves gushed, “I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going. … It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
CBS and other networks saw how Trump grabbed us. And, unrestrained, they gave us more.
In the face of this network entertainment imperative now run amok, both parties have morphed into spineless, acquiescent blobs. Their primary rules reward entertainment at the expense of seriousness. As The Washington Post‘s Matt Bai recently observed, “the (Democratic) party’s criteria for allowing candidates to debate are boneheaded and not terribly democratic (small ‘d’) in spirit. If you’re going to choose your field based on polling and fundraising data, turning presidential politics into a fantasy football league, then you should create a third metric to recognize service in statewide or federal office. … Especially when you hold yourself out as the party that values public service.”
Yes, Democrats should, but the parties are no longer running the show.
By setting entertainment value above the ability to build consensus, we are setting up our republic for leadership failure. Leaders who alienate as many people as they excite on the campaign trail will not be able to hold a governing consensus. In fact, good governors and mayors — by which I mean those with track records of important accomplishments in difficult times — would not have been successful in office if they repelled as many people as they energized.
Ultimately, of course, we — we the voters, we the viewers, we the people — are doing it to ourselves. The great danger to our democracy today is that we’d rather be well-entertained than well-governed. We’d rather emote than think. We’d rather be lied to than led. But there is a big difference between public entertainment and public discourse. Restore the doctrines of fairness and equal time — only then will we have a fighting chance to restore the integrity of our democracy.