The ‘Sportsification’ of Political News

A loyal reader mentioned to me a while ago that political news is morphing into sports news. Consider the now-famous Chris Matthews’ smackdown of rightwing radio host Kevin James. Instead of focusing on Matthews’ deconstruction, instead listen to the first thirty seconds or so:

How is this any different than ESPN’s Jim Rome or anything on Fox Sports News? James has the same bloviating, loudmouth manner. He has no idea what he is talking about. When he wants to make a point, he just shouts louder. The only difference is that what Rome discusses–sports–doesn’t matter. We don’t wind up with ten percent of the population believing that a presidential candidate wants to convert our children to Mexicanism and force them to speak Muslim.
Then there’s this post by David Zirin about blogger Will Leitch (italics mine):

If anything, legacy sportswriters deserve far more scrutiny than the upstarts on the web. Washington Post and ESPNscribe Tony Kornheiser has said that this not a golden age of sportswriting, but it is a golden age for sportswriters. There is more money and fame for those willing to “play ball.”
Consider what Big Daddy Drew wrote on Deadspin about ESPN’s Rick Reilly. “Reilly is what I like to call a privileged sportswriter. I’m not saying he’s rich, or snooty, or anything like that. What I mean is that, in his position, Reilly has access to privileges that you or I, as normal sports fans, don’t have. He gets to go to the Masters, VIP-style. He gets to go golfing with Bill Clinton. He gets to ride in an Indy 500 race car. He gets to walk up to Sammy Sosa’s locker and dare him to pee in a cup for him. He gets to do all that. And that’s why he sucks…. If you’re a privileged sportswriter, you’re experiencing sports in a completely different way from normal, everyday fans. It’s no coincidence the bulk of ESPN’s programming now involves sportswriters talking to one another. They’re the only people they can identify with. You certainly aren’t part of the conversation.”
What infuriates old-school sportswriters is that people on the web are calling them on their privilege, isolation and celebrity. In sharp contrast, bloggers, with their messy passion and sharp interaction with readers, sometimes sound far more authentic.

Let’s do some driftglassian editing of those last few sentences:

If you’re a privileged political journalist, you’re experiencing politics in a completely different way from normal, everyday people. It’s no coincidence the bulk of the MSM’s programming now involves journalists talking to one another. They’re the only people they can identify with. You certainly aren’t part of the conversation.”

Sound like any political media you know? Now, it’s pretty obvious why this is happening. Under the old model, at best, you could become a syndicated columnist and sell books that no one buys. But under the sports model, you can become a brand. You can synergize customer-oriented messages across a range of media platforms to maximize market share and improve income generation. Or some other bullshit.
The problem with the ‘sportsification’ of political media is that it interferes with the ability to impart useful information. Sports is all about the horse race, whereas, in politics, communicating the details matters. While the corrective Matthews offered is refreshing, there’s no way that kind of remedy could be systemic. Unfortunately, I have no solid idea how to fix this, since the economic incentives seem to running in the opposite direction–solid journalism doesn’t pay: just ask David Cay Johnston. The only hope–and a poor one at that–is that politicians and citizens decide to cut the mainstream media and its various stupid needs out of the loop.

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3 Responses to The ‘Sportsification’ of Political News

  1. QrazyQat says:

    One thing good about sports news is that this is one area where you can see good reporting on controversial issues, like the doping stuff (where sports reporters went after stuff the sports bigwigs didn’t want them to cover). Sport reporting isn’t all about the horse race and scores, but the background to it. Interesting that one of the current better regular news/pundit presenters is Keith Olberman, with a sport reporter background.

  2. You make a very important point, Mike.
    There’s little or nothing a sports fan can do to affect the outcome of any individual contest; the winner of a football game is not decided by popular vote. Sports-style reporting in politics is perhaps inculcating that same attitude with respect to politics, that it’s somehow “out there” in the same sense that sports are “out there” — a contest between the intrinsic merits of the participants judged by reality — and not about the participants’ relationship to the public.

  3. mark says:

    I’ve thought that political news shows were merely entertainment, but lately they sound like opposing football centers arguing over which team will “play” a greater percentage of what they are capable of.

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