Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

How the media trivialize the election

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
updated 4:05 PM EST, Wed November 28, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Howard Kurtz: We've seen media seize on a parade of trivial statements in campaign
  • He cites "binders full of women," "horses and bayonets" and Big Bird
  • Kurtz says coverage of the substance of the campaign gets overshadowed by minor things
  • He says media chasing an audience discard serious issues and focus on crowd-pleasing themes

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's Reliable Sources and Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.

(CNN) -- The media have been giving us binders full of blather.

In a campaign that is supposedly, allegedly and ostensibly about big and serious issues, we have been wallowing in what amounts to sideshow stuff.

It's not just the focus on Mitt Romney saying at last week's presidential debate that in looking for appointees in Massachusetts he received "binders full of women," an admittedly funny phrase that exploded on cable news. The trending Twitter topic after this week's face off was President Obama's line about Romney hearkening back to a military backed by "horses and bayonets." Journalists after the first debate flocked to that towering issue known as Big Bird.

Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz

Are the media trivializing the campaign?

We have, through the course of this endless campaign season, bounced from one ephemeral controversy to the next, from the dog on the roof to "oops!" from Etch A Sketch to Joe Biden's laughter.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Journalists have pounced on botched phrases deemed to be gaffes:

"I like being able to fire people;" "You didn't build that;" "Ann Romney never worked a day in her life;" "I'm not concerned about the very poor."

Bonkers for Big Bird

Sometimes there are legitimate questions embedded in the choice of language, as with Romney's apparent dismissal of 47% of America, but more often it's just a chance to turn the candidate into a piƱata.

'Binders full of women' overshadows Presidential debate

Campaigns have always had their lighter side, of course, but this year we seem to be getting more empty calories than ever. That is not to slight the dogged reporters who have in fact delved into the issues and done the arduous work of fact-checking the candidates' ads and utterances. But let's face it: How often has their work been on the front pages or at the top of the newscasts?

Sure, in an age of on-demand information, you can gorge yourself on the candidates' conflicting arguments on the auto bailout or trade with China. But the media create narratives by cranking up the volume, and you have to strain to hear the issues dissected in a way you didn't when Donald Trump was throwing around his birtherism nonsense. Yes, the substantive pieces have run on inside newspaper pages, occasionally on home pages, and popped up on television, which has a harder time coping with complexity. So much easier for all of us to trumpet the latest poll.

More dual-screen users Tweeting during debates

Don't we deserve a better campaign? And aren't the media partially responsible?
Howard Kurtz

In their debates, the candidates have clashed on tax cuts, health care, immigration, Libya and other vital questions. You might wonder: Is Romney suddenly moderating positions he has taken for the last two years? Why, on Monday night in Boca Raton, did he keep agreeing with Obama's foreign policy? Does the president have a real second-term agenda? Yet the post-game chatter has zeroed in on zingers, body language, interruptions and attacks on the moderators themselves.

The foreign policy debate was sober and high-minded; does anyone actually believe the media will be exploring the exchanges on Afghanistan and Syria for more than 24 hours?

Some of this sustained superficiality has to do with today's relentless news cycle and shrinking attention spans. "You can't talk in 140 characters on Twitter about the complexities of the budget or taxes," veteran journalist Steve Roberts told me on Reliable Sources. Maybe so, but does that mean we just punt?

Analyst: Candidates played up strengths
How should candidates view Arab Spring?

Obama, Jon Stewart and 2012's comedy factor

The burden falls on the candidates as well. If they speak in vague sound bites and duck hard choices, it's more difficult (but hardly impossible) for news organizations to put substantive questions front and center.

What's more, they are increasingly ignoring the media's attempts to call them on exaggerations and falsehoods. "We're not going (to) let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers," Romney pollster Neil Newhouse said at the GOP convention. Once upon a time, campaigns felt compelled to make adjustments when their distortions were spotlighted. These days they just double the ad buy.

Have you noticed how many times the media have declared that we are about to plunge into a dead-serious debate? First the campaign was going to be about the economy. When the Supreme Court upheld Obamacare, we were assured that health care would be a dominant issue.

When Romney picked Paul Ryan, the pundits agreed that this would be a big election about Medicare and budget-cutting. Instead we wound up with endless stories about Ryan's P90X workout.

Hey, I get it. Everyone's chasing clicks and eyeballs. Delving into the intricacies of how Obama and Romney would fix Medicare can be eye-glazing, while writing about Michelle and Ann on "The View" is fun.

But as the clock runs out on the 2012 race, I'm left with this nagging feeling: Don't we deserve a better campaign? And aren't the media partially responsible?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:50 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT