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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.

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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.

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