Why the Sports Model of Political Reporting Has Had Disastrous Results
In the latter half of the 20th century, no one would confuse the hard news sections of newspapers with the sports sections. However, today, on-air news reporting has largely adopted the format used by 24-hour sports channels.
In the latter half of the 20th century, no one would confuse the hard news sections of newspapers with the sports sections. However, today, an era that has seen the center of gravity for journalism transfer from print to a combination of television and the Internet, on-air news reporting, in particular, reporting on political campaigns and elections, has largely adopted the format used by 24-hour sports channels.
In elections around the world, candidates and parties are treated by news commentators as contenders in sports matches. In the United States, some 24 Democratic candidates for president are ranked like professional sports teams and players. Opinion polls of questionable veracity are relied upon to predict electoral success, much like statistics and wagering odds are used to handicap soccer, football, basketball, and other sports matches.
Even the graphics used by sports channels to rank teams and players have been adopted by news networks to provide the fodder for under-contract pundits, very few of whom are professional journalists, to yammer on endlessly about what politician is up, down, or stagnant, based on opinion polls and a few on-the-street interviews of potential voters. This corruption of political reporting as a sporting event has resulted in the election of incompetent entertainers, including reality television performers like Donald Trump, being elected to office.
In January 2019, former Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administration official Bruce Bartlett recognized the problem with combining political and sports reporting when he criticized, in a tweet, the Washington Post’s decision to reassign the sports reporter covering the Washington Nationals baseball team to the national political desk reporting on the 2020 presidential campaign. Bartlett’s tweet created a backlash of controversy. It stated: “Washington Post assigns its top sports reporter to cover 2020 presidential race because the horse race is all that matters to the major media, no need to discuss candidates’ policies, ideas, proposals, truth, accuracy etc.”
According to the Washington City Paper, Bartlett later clarified his tweet by stating he was not questioning the sports reporter’s reporting skills but the tendency of the media to rely on “horse race-style reporting.” Bartlett also pointed to sports-style of reporting on politics being focused too much on results and a rush to be the first to obtain information. To be fair, many top-rated reporters transitioned from sports reporting to covering politics and even international affairs. But these individuals largely cut their journalism teeth in print reporting, not the highly competitive and ratings-dependent world of cable and satellite television news.
The obvious problem with treating politics as a sport is the money aspect. Reporting on sports networks stresses odds of winning, which are partly based on hyped up past performance statistics in predicting the outcome of games. In fact, there is not much “reporting” on these networks, but merely a collection of retired players and sports journalists sitting in extravagant studios and surrounded by jumbo plasma screens and team and player ranking boards debating various upcoming games. As major matches, such as the football Super Bowl, soccer’s World Cup, and baseball’s World Series approach, the hype offered by such programs increases to a fever pitch.
American television news consumers are now faced with the same style of reporting for mid-term elections, presidential primaries, and the biggest event of all, the presidential election. Taking their cues from US television news networks like CNN, MS-NBC, and Fox News, other nations’ news networks have copied the US style, even the traditionally staid British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), and Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
While serious questions have been asked about the role such reporting has on election turnout – voter “burnout” and subsequent apathy prior to election day being one consequence – there is no mechanism in place to guard against excesses by networks, especially reliance on dubious opinion polls. The Democratic and Republican Parties in the United States have even conditioned participation in televised debates on candidates’ placements in opinion polls and the amount of money they have raised. The vicious cycle of news network hype – copied from the sports networks – combined with handicap data like polling and campaign donations, which all feed into the outcome of televised debates, primary elections, and, ultimately, the national election, is a bastardization of the democratic political process.
Another aspect of professional sports that may have crept into politics in a big way is cheating. Cheating has been an element of professional sports since the 1919 World Series, when the Chicago White Sox were accused of intentionally losing the series in exchange for a bribe from a New York mob gangster named Arnold Rothstein. Other major sporting events have also seen their fair share of cheating, including the Tour de France and champion Lance Armstrong’s use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs, a referee for the National Basketball Association caught betting on games he officiated, baseball home run record holder Barry Bonds’s use of steroids, and the New England Patriots being caught deflating footballs.
However, with all the hype involved with professional sports and the risks of betting affecting the outcomes of games, the same indications are being seen in politics. Donald Trump’s election victory in 2016 came down to 77,744 votes in three states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. In two of those states with Republican governors, Michigan and Wisconsin, there were widespread reports of voter suppression in such majority African American cities of Detroit and Milwaukee. Was it enough to throw the election as a few dubious referee calls have been known to affect the outcome of major professional sporting matches? Many election experts believe that voter suppression definitely played a role in Trump’s victory.
And the combination of television and politics has resulted in other TV performers being elected as presidents of nations ranging from Ukraine, where comedian and actor Volodymyr Zelensky defeated the incumbent president of Ukraine, to Guatemala, where TV comedian Jimmy Morales was also elected president. Morales, like Trump, was a disaster as president. Predictions for Zelensky’s political future in Ukraine remain clouded over charges that he is a puppet of Ukrainian gangster-oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskiy.
As cable and satellite news networks have adopted the methods of sports channels, the first casualty has been in-depth investigative journalism. It costs much less to conduct round table discussion shows, with constant snickering and verbal gymnastics from contributors under contract, than sending out crews to conduct long-lead investigations.
Wrong calls by Australian television news networks’ pundits and reliance on less-than-independent polls resulted in a surprise victory for incumbent Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his conservative coalition in the recent election, just as hyped TV news reporting missed the surprise outcome of the United Kingdom’s 2016 Brexit referendum on leaving the European Union. In reporting on both polls, TV news pundits said that Morrison and Brexit “beat all odds” in their victories. Nations that have combined sports-type coverage with political reporting are exporting their nasty ways to emerging democracies like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where presidential candidate Felix Tshisekedi surprisingly trounced two rivals in a surprise upset late last year.
When there is an upset victory in a soccer, football, baseball, tennis, auto racing and other sporting events, life usually goes on for the public without much consequences, except for the disappointed sports gambler. In politics, upsets linger for years with everyone suffering the consequences from sports-style reporting and the possibility of fraudulent election results.