Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

How the media trivialize the election

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
November 28, 2012 -- Updated 2105 GMT (0505 HKT)
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 piñata.

'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
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2311 GMT (0711 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT