Horse race journalism doesn’t belong in politics


Graphic by Jessi Wood

At the end of July, the political equivalent to Comic-Con, rightly called “Politicon,” took place in California.

Events ranged from movies, to guest speakers, to heated debates between members of the left and the right. One of the main events was the debate between progressive superstar Cenk Uygur, co-creator of The Young Turks and Ben Shapiro, the editor of The Daily Wire, host of The Ben Shapiro Show and a social justice warrior’s worst nightmare.

Typically with a political debate, the atmosphere is kind of eye-rolling, boring and “meh.” Instead, this debate was pumped up like the fight between Mayweather and MacGregor.

Cenk Uygur, in a video before the debate, called it a “title match” with a conservative “heavyweight.” Snapchat stories show Ben Shapiro getting off the bus like an NFL player before a game and the crowd going nuts between points that were being shot back and forth.

This small example of “pumped up politics,” shows that they are trying to act like sporting events. This is a ridiculous concept. Politics trying to emulate sporting events is like my 84-year-old Dutch grandmother trying to play Call of Duty: it’s just odd.

One key way politicians attempt to achieve this is through language. Going back to the Uygur-Shapiro debate; the words that were used to describe Ben Shapiro.

Shapiro is not a “heavyweight.” Heavyweight is defined by as “heavy in weight,” or “of more than average weight and thickness.” Ben Shapiro is a small, skinny, white guy from California. He is a brilliant conservative commentator and attorney, but he is not a heavyweight.

Politics utilizes language from sports to make it sound more entertaining than it actually is. Heavyweight, title match, game plan, slam dunk, or “Home Run for money in politics” according to an MSNBC anchor.

To average people, politics is supposed to be boring. Someone attempting to explain politics is like an IT guy explaining why a computer system crashed; most people simply lack the interest to fully understand it.

One thing that has been successful at making politics accessible to the general population – for better or worse – is a phenomenon known as “horse race journalism.” This is when the the primary focus of news is on numbers and poll performance as opposed to policy. This is part of a vain attempt to remain objective, the mindset being “if we report objectively on the numbers then our job is done; people can make up their own minds.”

Obviously striving to be objective should be a primary focus for most journalists, but when the current political climate resembles a dumpster fire more closely than of any sort of respectable government institution, maybes it’s time to say something other than “Trump leads the race.”

By covering the recent US election in an “objective” way, a lot journalists attempted to relieve themselves of the responsibility of holding Trump accountable for all the stupid shit he says. And as the old adage goes: “no publicity is bad publicity.”

Look at election night in the US in 2016. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Fox News averaged 12.2 million viewers and CNN averaged 11.2 million viewers watching Trump become president. During all three presidential debates, 74 million people were averaged across all three networks that aired them. To compare this to sports, the last game of the World Series, when the Chicago Cubs won for the first time in 113 years, averaged 40 million viewers.

The point being that politicians need to stop acting like they’re marketing sporting events. Be it the stealing of language, or treating elections like horse races, political platforms are trying to be something they’re not. By attempting to be cool and get high ratings on news channels, it has turned a once respected sector of society into a farcical, bloated source of entertainment.

If, in the end, political institutions are going to be marketed like sporting events driven by ratings, then the next time Cenk Uygur and Ben Shapiro debate, I elect that Cenk must piledrive Ben on stage after being trash talked over his personal beliefs. Only then would a political event truly be a “title match.”

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