I really don’t enjoy pointing out the failures of other journalists, but if I have to read one more of Anthony Zurcher’s embarrassing previews for the Democratic debates, then I think I’ve earned the right to cope by ridiculing him for typing such swill. I will even be generous, though he has done nothing to earn my good favor, and write with as little cruelty of spirit as I can sustain. Zurcher is hardly the only incompetent polluting the pool of political journalism, but his juvenile analyses of “audience expectations” for the Democratic debates are too tasteless to be swallowed without a bit of protest.
In the first place, there is nothing noble in writing a “preview” for a presidential debate. A preview is nothing more than a gaudy advertisement, a shallow promotion for some commercial entity. It’s tedious enough to sit through trailers at the movies, but to reduce a political debate to something so superficial and self-serving is simply obscene. Matt Taibbi recently wrote about the corporate media’s shameful approach to political spectacle, an approach which is becoming frighteningly reminiscent of that which is undertaken by ESPN. The only difference is that ESPN is honest about its content, lacking the pretentious sense of prestige that accompanies the coverage on CNN and MSNBC. If you haven’t checked out Taibbi’s article, you owe it to yourself to do so:
The good news is that CNN is increasingly recognized as a multimedia tabloid, an omnipresent source of misinformation that can’t be trusted any further than you can throw your television set. The bad news is that the BBC, where Anthony Zurcher receives his paycheck, is still appreciated as a respectable organization, even among many supposed intellectuals. It’s looked upon as the thinking man’s CNN, although it hasn’t made the feeblest efforts to disguise its establishment bias in years, if it ever did. The BBC offers a bevy of pseudointellectual, pseudo-progressive pabulum, the intended effect of which is to imprison its readers in the same state of creative bankruptcy that led so many people to embrace a fake feminist like Hillary Clinton, and which may compel just as many people to endorse Joe Biden, an apologist for Wall Street and so many other loathsome institutions.
Ah, but these are dreary details, and we ought to disregard them, lest we be distracted from the endless spectacle. The establishment needs its carnival barkers, and here comes Zurcher, drawing us back into the circus tent. His “preview”, written in crude and clownish language, envisions the debate as a kind of combat sport, a brawny battle in which the candidates go “toe-to-toe” with one another as the jaded audience waits “for sparks to fly”. There is remarkably little discussion on the reason for the battle, for these much-anticipated “sparks”, which is precisely the point: to Zurcher, the debate is not an examination of philosophical substance, but a brainless game in which the toughest, and not the smartest, survive. Zurcher facilitates the work of CNN, which is to bastardize the political culture, to denude it of its intellectual dignity, and to reduce it to the titillating interests of the lowest common denominator.
To be fair, there is no other way for Zurcher to promote the debate, as there will be almost nothing in the way of thoughtful analysis. Bernie Sanders will recite some depressing, enlightening figures on American inequality, and Marianne Williamson might provide some welcome context to the more traditional criticism of big business, but what can you expect from the other eight pretenders? Geopolitical illiteracy from Tim Ryan? Right-wing fearmongering from John Delaney? Insincere appeals to Hispanics from Beto O’Rourke? This is not a discussion between Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader; it’s a convention of spokesmen for powerful institutions, and we will be fortunate if there are three honorable people crashing the party, including the second night.
Absent credible justification to watch, the best Zurcher can do is to sell the audience on “tussles”. He promises us that the candidates will be feisty and fierce, as if these are the characteristics that we should seek in politicians. What he envisions as “fabled political lightning” is really a guarantee of squalor, of thoughtlessness gussied up as conviction. What he is doing is persuading any serious person not to tune in, which may, too, be the point: maybe this political culture is repulsive by design, engineered to suck the most gullible in while simultaneously forcing the most observant out. I understand completely if you sit this one out, but I will resist the temptation to defeatism and watch. At the very least, there will be the meager reward of the second night, when Tulsi Gabbard is given an opportunity to speak—a very limited opportunity, but an opportunity nonetheless.
Something tells me Anthony Zurcher will be back with post-game . . . sorry, post-debate analysis before the sun comes up tomorrow. In the meantime, I would remind him of what his colleague wrote four years ago, when Donald Trump was just embarking on the campaign trail. His colleague, Nick Bryant, took Trump to task for his lowbrow appeal, casting him for profiting off of our lowest instincts and pettiest desires. I’m sure you can identify the irony for yourself.