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Manufacturing Suspense: Big Money Media Gatekeepers Turn Debate Into Spectacle

Big money’s influence is changing how corporate media report on elections to favor intellectual property interests and profits.

Democratic presidential hopefuls Jim Webb, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Martin O'Malley and Lincoln Chafee are asked questions by CNN's Anderson Cooper during the Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nevada, on October 13, 2015.

Part of the Series

Almost everything we know about the ongoing primary election contest is mediated through some kind of screen. While the rise of new media has helped to partially shatter the one-way mirror effect of the traditional media, the major media conglomerates still exert enormous influence in negotiating the public’s experience of the election process.

It’s through this compromised screen that we are now seeing the Democratic presidential field narrow to three, with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton widening her lead over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) in Iowa by a margin of nearly two to one among primary voters, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. She has also recently gained a small lead over Sanders in New Hampshire.

But Sanders’s supporters have contended for months that the mainstream media coverage of his campaign has given him short shrift, dedicating much less coverage to his campaign overall and condescendingly dismissing his candidacy, despite his ability to draw large, excited crowds.

As Matt Taibbi recently argued, many in the mainstream journalism establishment set out to cover candidates with immature, high-school-like prerequisites for determining whether they are “electable.” According to Taibbi, campaign-trail journalists have determined Sanders is “unelectable,” arguing, among other obnoxious standards, that he doesn’t “kiss enough babies.”

Coverage of Sanders’s campaign, has, in fact, been more scant in terms of quantity of stories on nightly newscasts and in major newspapers like The New York Times, than Clinton’s. While some media analysts say it might be reasonable that Clinton is covered more because she continues to lead in polls, the fact that Martin O’Malley received more substantive coverage than Sanders in the run-up to the first Democratic debate on CNN seems implicitly prejudiced.

The idea that big media pundits declared Clinton the “winner” of that first debate last month, despite the fact that every focus group and online poll from the night determined that Sanders had “won” by at least an 18-point margin, has been the subject of vigorous post-debate debate. While many in the media have rightly pointed out that pundits, by their nature, are not objective, and that online polls lack scientific rigor in terms of collecting a truly representative sample, other polls accepted by beltway journalists as more representative of the electorate (including polls cited at the beginning of this story) have their own problems.

For one thing, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which shows Clinton leading in Iowa by 31 points, contacted 650 of its 1,000 sampled people via landline telephone, with the remaining 350 contacted via cellphone. Another widely cited Monmouth University poll showing Clinton leading by 41 points in Iowa suffers the same problem, sampling 400 Iowa voters with 300 of them contacted via a landline phone.

Almost half the nation no longer uses landline phones. This is especially the case for those under 45 years old, which could be argued to skew the polls in Clinton’s favor. Additionally, the very same NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showing her as leading over Sanders by 31 points also reports that a majority of respondents view her unfavorably.

But when it comes to new media platforms that are defined by public participation and interaction, such as the many online polls Sanders dominated after the first Democratic debate, his campaign has thrived. His campaign regularly trends on Twitter, and his campaign’s posts garner tens of thousands of likes and shares while threads about him often pop up on the front page of Reddit.

Media critic and University of Illinois Professor Robert McChesney, who co-authored Dollarocracy: How the Money-and-Media-Election Complex is Destroying America with The Nation’s National Affairs Correspondent John Nichols, agreed with most media pundits that Clinton gave a commanding performance during October’s CNN debate but told Truthout the focus groups and online polls reporting Sanders as the debate’s winner are an indication of a wider anti-establishment sentiment.

“What [the online polls] told me was that the conventional bullshit of politicians, to be graphic — the slickness, having a smart answer for every question, having a ‘zinger,’ twisting your opponent’s record carefully in such a way as to make them look bad but not to do it crudely so that it could hurt you — stuff that Hillary does so beautifully and that great politicians do, that stuff doesn’t work as well anymore,” McChesney told Truthout.

For McChesney, mainstream media pundits weren’t wrong in their assessment of Clinton’s performance; they were ignorant of how to judge how the broader public would perceive it.

“People have heard this sort of stuff from politicians for so long that they’re immune to it,” McChesney said of Clinton’s polished answers. “I think that Bernie wasn’t working that side of the street had tremendous appeal to a lot of people [who] have given up on politics, … and of course the pundits are the last to ever figure this out. But the entire news media, they’re used to judging politicians by how well they can bullshit people. It’s not whether they can bullshit people, that’s taken for granted, it’s how well they do it. Today we’re learning that being able to manipulate people with very smart, quick, witty responses isn’t going to work because people realize there’s essentially nothing in [a politician’s] actual record.”

Sanders’s supporters have alleged that campaign contributions to Clinton from the parent companies of major media outlets hosting the debates point to an alliance that could have given her an edge on debate night.

Time Warner, which owns CNN, has so far donated $132,710 to Clinton’s 2016 campaign, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, making Time Warner Clinton’s ninth-largest contributor this year. The company and its related political action committees have given her at total of $501,831, since 1999, just before her bid for a Senate seat in 2000, making Time Warner her seventh-largest campaign contributor throughout her political career, according to the Center. In contrast, no major media company or parent corporation is listed among Sanders’s top-20 campaign contributors so far this cycle, according to Center data.

McChesney, however, is doubtful that Time Warner’s contributions to Clinton’s campaign somehow mean CNN’s debate moderators set her up to win in October. Anyway, he said, it may be beside the point because large television networks should be concerned about even the appearance of conflict of interest.

Another longtime media historian and professor at Northeastern University in Boston, Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High-Risk TV, agrees, telling Truthout, “The networks also have their credibility at stake, and so do the individual journalists [who] are moderating these things, so if these moderators come in and they’re in the tank for one candidate, it’s going to be pretty obvious that that’s the case, and it’s going to reflect badly on them.”

Campaign contributions from parent corporations of major media networks are nothing new. Major media conglomerates including Time Warner, National Amusements, 21st Century Fox and the Walt Disney Company have collectively contributed more than $1 million in campaign contributions to political organizations and candidates this election cycle.

But beyond campaign contributions, many contend that the Democratic National Committee (DNC), led by Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, has organized this cycle’s debate schedule to benefit Clinton by allowing only six DNC-sponsored debates. Critics within the party have widely accused Wasserman Schultz, formerly one of Clinton’s national campaign co-chairs in 2008, of scheduling so few debates to deprive Sanders of airtime in order to shield Clinton from potential damage and avoid a repeat of the 2008 primaries, where President Obama used the national spotlight to overcome Clinton’s early lead.

Unlike general election debates, primary debates are negotiated directly by either the Republican National Committee (RNC) or the DNC with the cable television networks hosting them. Wasserman Schultz directly negotiated the October Democratic primary debate with CNN.

The Democratic primary debates this election cycle are not only few in number, but they are also characterized by exclusion. When the debate schedule was announced earlier this year, an added exclusionary clause declaring that any candidate participating in the DNC-sponsored debates must do so exclusively, came as a complete surprise to many party insiders.

“Debbie Wasserman Schultz is probably Hillary Clinton’s shill,” McChesney told Truthout. “Basically, the fix is in. They want Hillary to get the nomination with as little opposition as possible so she goes into the general [election] with a unified party.… They would tell you that too over a cocktail, they just can’t do that publicly.”

What’s also different about the primary debates this year is the incredible ratings that the cable networks hosting them have hauled in so far, particularly during the first two Republican primary debates this year. The first GOP debate, hosted by Fox News in August, averaged 24 million viewers. The second, hosted by CNN in September, averaged 23 million viewers. By contrast, the first Democratic debate, hosted by CNN, averaged 15 million views, and the most recent CNBC-hosted GOP debate averaged 14 million views.

All four debates broke records, becoming the most-watched primary debates in history — and cash cows for cable networks in terms of charging for advertising time. It’s this incredible surge in revenue generation for the networks that has the potential to change the structure of the debates to the detriment of the higher ideals of journalism.

“It used to be that debates were not about money at all. They were kind of something that just were a civic duty of the networks and not thought of as the kind of programming that would generate revenue, but that’s completely changed now,” Schroeder told Truthout.

Schroeder says some networks’ may be aiming to generate ad revenue from the candidates who hope to be included in their televised debates. “Now all of a sudden the Fox News channel is setting the agenda for who gets into the debates but also collecting money from candidates who are trying to bolster their poll standards to try to get into the debate,” he said.

The other question, though, is whether this year’s ratings will promote the debates’ further deterioration into infotainment-style political journalism, with an increased emphasis on questions which pit the candidates against one another rather than probing their records and positions more deeply. Will Donald Trump’s style set a longer-term trend in big media debates?

Schroeder isn’t too worried, saying that creating that kind of conflict has always been endemic to campaign journalism, but he also agrees with McChesney that the networks have a vested interest in generating fireworks because it’s good for ratings.

The moderators of the most recent GOP debate, hosted by CNBC, have come under fire for their poor handling of it, and for asking questions perceived as loaded and contentious. The RNC has since pulled out of a February debate scheduled with NBC and reshuffled its own staff amid protests from the GOP field about the CNBC moderators.

Now, several Republican candidates are exploiting the corporate media’s failure by drawing up demands for all networks sponsoring debates for the rest of the primary season, potentially harming the integrity of the debates by seeking to ban questions that require candidates to give yes-or-no answers, for example. Republicans candidates such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) are even suggesting extreme right-wing show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin or Sean Hannity moderate their debates.

Yet another problem with the primary debates in more recent history is that they have become the intellectual property of the television networks that host them, protected under copyright laws.

“I know it’s relatively easy to extract clips from [the debates] now, but as a historian I would be concerned four or five years down the line. Are we going to be able to find these things, and are we going to be able to watch them?” Schroeder asks. “To whom do the debates belong? They should belong to the American people. They should not be the intellectual property of specific television network, and yet that is a danger of having the cable network be the sponsor of them.”

It’s one of the fundamental reasons that McChesney and The Nation’s Nichols argue the commercial model of the mainstream media is so insidious, robbing the public of ownership over the information it needs to become an educated electorate. Rather, McChesney says, the debates should be non-commercial and free to all broadcasters to carry on their stations. He would also reformat their style to become more substantive, and to draw out more meaningful exchanges.

The primary debates’ devolution into something akin to a reality TV show, however, is just a symptom of the problem embedded in the corporate model of the United States’s corporate media establishment, which McChesney says is on its way out anyway.

“We’re at a point, increasingly in the last decade, where the commercial model of journalism is collapsing,” he said. “The bad news today is that advertisers, who have provided the lion’s share of revenue for journalism for the last century, … they’re jumping ship. They have no rational reason … to buy ads in news media except for the sad purpose of really trying to influence the news, which is what you want to prevent if you’re a professional journalist. So the commercial model is dead, and we have to replace it.”

McChesney and Nichols have called for a public-subsidy system, reimagining economist Dean Baker’s “Artistic Freedom Voucher” proposal, a new charitable giving structure, so that taxpayers receive $200 in annual tax credits to allocate to nonprofit media outlets of their choice, whose content would then automatically go into the public domain.

“It’s a government subsidy with no government control over who gets the money,” McChesney said. “It invites competition, but it’s not commercial competition. That’s the sort of solution we need if we’re going to have journalism.”

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