This week, Americans have been exposed to intense forms of two canonical pillars of American cultural life: politics and sports. And what better way to experience the full brunt of both of those things than on the couch in front of the TV. Special thanks are in order to my housemate, who realized that Wesleyan students get Xfinity for free and created an account (if you don’t have it, do it). Moving past re-runs of The Dr. Oz Show and The Princess Bride, it’s hard to ignore the heightened sense of urgency on TV this week, both with regards to political and sports coverage.
On one hand, with the impeachment trial of Donald Trump in full swing, virtually every news channel has packed every minute of airtime tightly, replete with the freshest takes from legal experts, re-runs of Representative Adam Schiff, novel and often superfluous graphics, and Anderson Cooper. On the other hand, the pre-game coverage leading to Sunday’s Super Bowl LIV–in which the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers will duke it out for football supremacy–has given channels like ESPN and Fox Sports 1 enough talk-time fodder to analyze every aspect and minutiae of the game at hand. Takes from those outside the football world have also dominated airtime, with everyone from Snoop Dogg to Steve Harvey giving their Super Bowl predictions on air. Slightly more entertaining segments–like Colin Cowherd using deep fakes of tight ends–are merely the cherry on top of the gluttonous cake of Super Bowl coverage.
Admittedly, I’ve watched a lot of TV this week. But after several hours of switching between channels, an unnerving similarity becomes abundantly clear. Whether it is CNN or ESPN, Jeffrey Toobin or Stephen A. Smith, Adam Schiff or Patrick Mahomes, the mediums and tactics of political and sports coverage have become one and the same.
Perhaps this is not a new realization; political coverage on forums like CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News, among others, have ditched traditional news reportage for round-table discussion, packing the screen with ‘pundits’ where conversation often devolves into debate, and debate into screaming and shouting. But the striking similarities between the news and popular sports debate shows–like First Take, Undisputed, and First Things First–is unsettling, and indicative of the new norms of news coverage. This is certainly not a partisan problem either; this new format transcends the perceived political inclinations of the news channels and the pundits involved. Yet, the operative problem remains. Debate has achieved primacy over inquiry, and in essence, entertainment has replaced the news.
To many, the deterioration of news coverage is a reflection of the broader strategy of entertainment executives. For example, Jeffrey Zucker, the President of CNN since 2013 and formerly the head of NBC/Universal, has been publicly blamed for the network’s shift towards performative news, particularly during the course of the 2016 Presidential Election and the network’s coverage of Donald Trump. But surely, this change is indicative of the changing tides amongst the general public. The American appetite for bluster and amusement is clearly at an all-time high. Conversely, shows devoted towards serious journalistic inquiry have dwindled, with few TV personalities–Fareed Zakaria and Rachel Maddow come to mind–still occupying roles of authority.
Turning back to sports coverage, a similar trajectory can be seen, symptomatic of round-the-clock demand for entertainment. First Take, a debate show which started in 2007 and popularized by the duo of Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless, quickly became the crowning jewel in the arsenal of the struggling sports network, ESPN. In 2016, Bayless moved to Fox Sports 1 and was paired with Hall of Fame Tight End Shannon Sharpe, starting something akin to daytime sports debate show wars between the two networks. Now, morning and afternoon time slots on both channels are dominated by sports talk shows highlighted by animated broadcasters and former sports stars – all clamoring for the next pocket of silence to profess their opinions into the public ether.
Of course, the terrible truth about the new modus operandi of political and sports coverage is that it is terribly entertaining, particularly in a week like this. Switching between coverage of the Impeachment Trial and the Super Bowl on TV reminds me of how similar, and how entertaining different genres of television have become. For those without a TV, all of these networks have enhanced their YouTube presence as well, regularly posting short clips with headlines that promise some semblance of drama and confrontation.
Oddly, this format can, in some circumstances, be fruitful. In the wake of Kobe Bryant’s recent death, debate shows that aired the morning after were devoted towards his remembrance, with personalities from all over the sports world chiming in with stories and kind words. This format served as a forum for collectivized grief, where the camaraderie between participants was palpable. However, this is surely an aberration, and not the norm. Many of the same shows finished with their pre-planned Super Bowl coverage, as genuine grief paved way for more debate.
The way that we have approached coverage in general has reached new heights, and aims to capture our attention at every convenience. In the process, the newsman and the broadcaster have become one and the same, as vastly different subjects are ostensibly treated with similar concern. The popular idiomatic expression that politics is like sports used to be just that; a saying. As the Impeachment Trial roars on and Super Bowl inches closer, it’s frightening to see how seamlessly they mirror each other.
Tobias Wertime can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.