Now that we've been through two years of ceilings, cliffs, and sequesters—and the subsequent cable news freakout that came with them—can the mainstream media stop emboldening politicians into continued dysfunction and start treating them like the bad behaving children they’ve become?
When your child acts out or does the wrong thing, do you shower them with 24/7 attentions? No, you ground them, have a stern talk with them, or ignore them. Go ask a parent if they’ve ever succeeded in stopping their screaming child by dropping everything and succumbing to their tantrum. Don't get me wrong, covering politics is not exactly the same as parenting (fortunately for me, I don’t have any young rascals screaming at me yet). But the same principle applies—you don’t reward bad behavior with unfettered attention.
And whether it is Fox freaking out over fiscal cliff tax hikes, or Chris Matthews losing the thrill down his leg over the sequester, watching cable news during these budget battles has become more frightful than jumping off an actual cliff.
From the space shuttle-like countdown clocks to hourly cut-ins showing politicians saying nothing at press conferences, our media has gone from covering serious economic crises to producing the soap “Days of our Dysfunction.” Making matters worse during these faux-crises are the actual crises that fall by the wayside — like 20 school children being executed in Newtown, Connecticut.
During the final days of 2012, while the media shifted from the tragedy of Newtown to all out fiscal cliff hysteria, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the parents of the slain children—whose were now becoming victims for a second time, this time by a media treating them like a routine news cycle whose relevance had passed. A novel concept these days, but couldn’t our media have used its 24/7 perch to cover BOTH stories? On Newtown, continuing to speak with people affected by the tragedy as well as other gun violence victims, and on the fiscal cliff, reporting on what made up the 2001/2003 Bush tax cuts and what was the actual economic impact? Daring as it might be, maybe even trek outside the comfy confines of the newsroom to ask some wealthier folks how a small tax increase will impact their wallets and business.
This lack of substance isn’t breaking news, says former Fox News and Telemundo executive Joe Peyronnin.
"What I see out of Washington is government by talking point," and out of journalism is "horse race coverage,” said Peyronnin, who is now a journalism professor at Hofstra University and NYU. Peyronnin added that “in the continual cable battle for ratings, digging deeper into what’s behind these budget battles comes second to giving the headlines and following the political tit-for-tat. You get rewarded for grabbing viewers, not necessarily for in depth analysis."
This drive for ratings is understandable; you gotta pay the bills. As a former cable news producer myself, I quickly realized that those college journalism professors preaching "balance" and "digging deeper" had never stepped inside a cable newsroom. But the drive for ratings goes to far when it crosses the threshold of simply covering crisis into encouraging our political "leaders" to create new ones.
President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner both bank on having MSNBC, Fox, or CNN at their beck and call — following every tweet, press conference, and stump speech to keep the unnecessary drama alive. When our media finally takes a collective chill-pill, and stops the wall-to-wall hyperventilating, our Washington D.C. children disguised in suits might be forced to devise a new strategy that doesn’t feature the advantage of an endless media microphone.
So, what are the odds of this collective cool down period? Probably about as good as Sean Hannity announcing tonight his switch to the Democratic Party.
Wouldn’t that, along with a return to some measured cable news coverage, be real must-see TV!
Jordan Chariton is a politics, media and culture writer. He has previously produced for Foxnews.com’s “Strategy Room,” Fox Business Network’s “Freedom Watch,” and MSNBC Dayside. Tweet him @JordanChariton