When I, a freshman associate sports editor, was asked to pack my bags and travel to New Hampshire to cover the presidential primary, I was taken aback. How could I be qualified to cover material so far outside of my job description?
Little did I understand that, in reality, I pretty much was qualified.
In my much-dreaded but much-anticipated writing seminar, I’ve learned that the media has changed over the years, and that there is no longer an emphasis, or really a care, about policy. Instead, the focus now is on the spectacle.
“He had a really good performance today”; “I’m looking forward to seeing which strategy he chooses”; “It’s coming down to the wire”— where did you hear these, ESPN or CNN?
The difference between the two is more irrelevant than ever before, and as I traveled along the campaign trail, that fact could not have been more clear.
People at a town hall event in Bedford, N.H., on Saturday were sporting shirts supporting former Florida governor Jeb Bush, gathering in droves to cheer on their candidate’s performance. I interviewed some of the supporters in the crowd before the event, and their words of advice for Jeb! ranged from “hang in there” to “I just don’t think he’s got the firepower.”
Meanwhile, at a Carly Fiorina event the same day, supporters were demanding the news networks level the playing field by letting Carly debate. All of these little things — and especially Senator Marco Rubio’s Super Bowl watch party on Sunday — point to the notion that this entire presidential race is barely distinguishable from a sporting event.
Speaking of Marco, did anyone watch the debate on Saturday night? The poor guy was Apollo Creed for a pack of one-night Rocky Balboas. The event was a boxing match just like almost every debate before it.
But it isn’t just the words and the actions of the candidates and their supporters that make this election cycle so sports-like. The coverage of the political spectacle has itself become so similar to the coverage of a sporting event.
As I wrote up a report on Governor John Kasich’s town hall on Sunday, it came to my attention that I couldn’t find much difference between that write-up and the recap I had written the night before on the Penn women’s basketball game against Dartmouth.
For both, I was locating moments and using them to reflect on the bigger picture of the season as a whole. Lauren Whitlatch made it rain from behind the arc during Saturday’s win, scoring a career-high 19 points. Her performance saved the night for the Quakers — they couldn’t score until several minutes in when she drilled a shot from distance.
Meanwhile, Kasich’s event got off to a very slow start. The former governor was late, and his introductory speakers were mediocre. All of that changed, however, when he entered the room and yelled to the crowd, “This is ridiculous! There’s a Super Bowl today — go home!”
He proceeded to give his jacket away to a lucky member of the audience — not unlike an athlete giving his jersey to a fan — and the rest was history. Simply put, he lit it up the stage. His performances in New Hampshire along with recent polls suggest that he is a strong contender for second place in the Republican primary on Tuesday, the same position most pundits predicted Ivy League-leading Penn women’s basketball would end up in the conference at the start of the 2015-16 season.
So on a weekend in which I traveled from a women’s basketball game, to a Bush campaign event, to another basketball game, to a John Kasich town hall — with dozens of stops in between — I ended up feeling much more adequately prepared to cover both types of events. If anything, the political ones were a little easier.
I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not, but I’m definitely not qualified to declare with certainty. All I do know is that anyone who treats this election as anything other than a sport ought to watch the debates and reconsider.
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