Like many, I am appalled by the lack of seriousness in the media’s coverage of the presidential contenders, particularly their televised debates. Questions like “what’s you favorite Bible verse?” and “have you ever seen a UFO?” have zero relevance and are an insult to our intelligence; the same for stories about whether Obama is “black enough,” whether Hillary’s laugh is grating, or the price of Edwards’s haircut. The apparent obsession with trivia, distractions, and vacuity is deservedly satirized in this Onion news clip.
But the topic is hardly comical; we are about to elect a new leader of the free world at a pivotal time. Why all the frivolity?
One standard explanation is that this is what people want: if they didn’t, the media wouldn’t supply it. There is certainly a grain of truth to this; people do spend an inordinate amount of time watching low quality shows, both news and entertainment. However this logic isn’t quite as sound when it comes to the presidential debates. For these the public has no options. Either we watch Tim Russert ask inane questions or we don’t watch at all; there is no alternative we can switch to.
But I think something more fundamental is occurring; what in economics is called “coordination failure”. The media business has become extremely competitive and risk-averse, and no media outlet wants to be the first to turn to more substantive issues and risk losing audience share to those that cater to the lowest common denominator.
Still there is a real hunger for more substantive news in the country. If all the major news organizations jointly resolved to only focus on issues of substance, I doubt highly that overall viewership would drop. In fact, I think the American people might wake up and ask themselves why they weren’t demanding more substance and real analysis all along.
So here’s my plea to the media empires of the world: please, please get together and agree to drop the triviality. Not every story has to focus on policy details only a wonk could love, but let’s at least get to the core issues. It would be good for your viewers, for your listeners, and ultimately for the world. You could start with this list of questions, put together for FoxNews by a contributor to Reason magazine.