Politics as sport: Fight night, every night

I’m not a boxing fan by any stretch of the imagination, but in the last month, I watched hours of advertisements for the money-grabbing pay-per-view showdown between champ Floyd Mayweather Jr. and MMA fighter Conor McGregor.

Every time I was forced to sit through another one of these ads as I waited to watch the next episode of my comedy-drama, I had a strange sense of deja vu. I tried to put my finger on it, and eventually I realized that the familiarity I felt while watching these ads came from watching the CNN advertisements for election night last fall.

Thinking back to nearly a year ago, I remember that the election-night ads seemed basically benign, albeit overdramatized and even a bit silly.

After making the initial connection between the two commercial categories, I found that listing similarities between them was an easy task. It’s also easy to create a description that could apply to both advertisements.

Two contestants’ faces loom in a high-contrast shot that quickly transitions into a highlight reel playing the knockout blows from their most recent victories. A deep voice emphasizes that this will be the fight to end all fights as a glossy graphic fills the screen, returning to the contrast photos as the screen fades to black.

The more I started to think about it, the more certain I became that there was an intention behind these similarities.

It didn’t take much work to find evidence to corroborate my theory. In a 2017 interview with The New York Times Magazine’s Jonathan Mahler, Jeff Zucker, president of CNN, explicitly stated, “The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way.”

Outlets such as CNN, Fox News and MSNBC bring on commentators with a range of expertise (or lack thereof) to provide their own opinion and analysis of the topic at hand. They hash it out in conversational panels that escalate to shouting matches before the next sensational story breaks. The panels are reassembled with a slightly different cast, a slightly different shouting match commences – and then it’s on to the next story.

This sort of television news results in a stalemate of spokespeople unable to move away from their respective talking points. So-called debate becomes mindless war between two sides, conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat. Politics becomes marketed as a sporting competition between two teams: the ultimate high-stakes fight.

Unlike a basketball game, these debates have life-or-death consequences. We are rooting for lawmakers who decide how to move forward on issues ranging from nuclear arms to health care. This adversarial approach to political debate is incredibly damaging to the credibility of the American press and the mindset of the average viewer. Presented with no options for compromise, the American audience is compelled to pick a side, foregoing solutions that reach across the aisle.

Until cable news stops treating politics like a spectator sport, the American public will continue to be deprived of the much needed analysis and reflection that come from traditionally “boring” discussion.

No need to wait for the next boxing match, there’s a pay-per-view event on every night.

Lilah Penner Brown is a junior at Castilleja School.

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