Buffalo Bill's Defunct / by dan turner

The other day on NPR's Talk of the Nation, a caller had to admit that an on-air guest had stolen his thunder; the guest had just said that the current Presidential race is more like a reality show than a campaign. But even the guest wasn't being entirely original. Jezebel was on it and noted TPM noting it, showing even Republican candidates (current and former) placing themselves in this narrative of narrativity. But those were just the explicit castings, and not the real problem -- news relies on narrative, after all. The real problem is that even the "good" news outlets have long implicitly and explicitly favored narrative drive over any other content. That "reality show" is overwriting "horse race" doesn't make "horse race" any better for our future.

Though my love for NPR can perhaps verge into the stalker-y, it frustrates me to no end that the Political Junkie and other coverage is perpetually stuck on who's up and who's down in polls, perception, points. And it's not just NPR: the horse race is the standard template for talking about politics no matter you choose as your most trusted name in news. There have been the odd chart on who would benefit and who would suffer if 9-9-9 somehow became the law of the land, but that's the exception. (And this bit of policy analysis was, ironically, enabled by the same excessive and unworkable oversimplifications of the plan; who's been digging into what tax burdens for the poor would look like under a Romney or Huntsman plan? Actually, not radically different in shape, just in scale.)

Ed over at Gin and Tacos implies that the desire for narrative might even be shaping the race, rather than the race shaping the narrative. The networks are so hungry to be able to present the conflict of a nail-biter, Ed says, might be what ballooned one poll results into a perception that Gingrich could actually be a viable candidate. Well, there has to be some other reason, right? It's not like Gingrich is a viable candidate.

Even the excellent Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism ends up with this as the foundation for their analyses. If you look at their recent study of how news media and blogs have treated the candidates, you can tease out that the rise or fall in how a candidate is covered is fueled by talk about their standings in the polls. The horse race is the CDO or CDS market driving the Dow and, like that bad situation, we're ignoring how solid or crappy the underlying mortgages (policies) are.

So the video introductions to the Republican debates on CNN, MSNBC, Fox, and others look like nothing so much as the opening titles for any random season of "The Apprentice". What were they before? Perhaps more like an into to a title fight, with who's favored and who's the underdog. Seriously, that's hurting America, either way. At least, as some Americans seems to seriously desire a motivational speaker as their President, we're just being more honest about making it entertaining.