CNN is quick to remind its viewers that it has “the best political team on television,” and the phrase has entered into such prominence that one wonders whether has gone beyond a mere tagline. (Would the best political team on television like regular or decaf? ask the office interns.) Ever ambitious in their efforts to prove this superlative to viewers at home, the network recently added another gizmo to its horde of broadcast baubles: an “audience reaction” graph which scrolled incessantly across the bottom of the first presidential debate. The sorry state of political culture in our country is already well-documented. But the introduction of this new triviality is a stark diagnosis of just how burlesque our political media has become.
It’s clear from the start that CNN wasn’t particularly concerned with conveying anything in the way of actual information in their reaction graph. Crammed into the bottom fifth of the screen, the graph was mostly illegible on a standard-resolution TV. The hyperactive graphic designers who rule the airwaves spattered it with gratuitous chartjunk and a color scheme which left data indistinguishable from decoration. No scale offered any sense of what measurements indicated what values besides a relative guess at positive and negative. Oftentimes the lines would overlap; at many others, the Republican and Democrat lines were so faint as to be indistinguishable. Even the default graphs in Excel do a better job at communicating information.
Worse than the graphic hemorrhaging, though, was the fact that nobody on CNN ever really bothered to say much about what exactly it was, even though they apparently considered it important enough to block out a fifth of the debate. Aside from a label helpfully stating “Audience Reaction,” the screen remained ominously mum about what exactly these excitable lines were hooked up to. Opinion dials provided to the actual audience members? Focus groups watching in a research lab? Heart rate monitors on the candidates’ dogs?
I stuck around after the debate was over, hoping that the bottom bar might offer some clue as to how exactly this gadget worked. Instead I got a series of inane ‘FACT’ boxes seemingly lifted from the bottom of Snapple bottles.
What resulted out of all this, then, was a sort of electoral electrocardiogram hooked up to an anonymous patient. In an environment where the punditry is already obsessed over arbitrating who ‘won’ the debate, we now had a running tally of who was in the lead, based not on actual scorekeeping but on how much the fans was cheering. The political clash, so long an inconvenient quarrel of ideas and principles, was here distilled into just what we have been asking of it: a meaningless announcement of victors and vanquished.
This sort of thing flatters all of our worst tendencies in the modern political circus. We are already used to holding off making an opinion until the end of the debate so that David Brooks or Donna Brazile can tell us what, exactly, our opinion was. Now we no longer even need to wait that long, as we can just follow the line for our constituency group and be reminded exactly how we are supposed to be feeling about a certain performance. The debates, once the Symphony Hall of the election season, have become Follow The Bouncing Ball.
Perhaps soon enough we will reach a point where the candidates themselves have a screen following the reactions on their podiums. That way, when John McCain sees in front of him just how much the voters love it when he says the word ‘troops,’ he will be reminded to say the word as often as possible. Maybe if he says this enough times in ten seconds the lines will shoot to the top and a sixteen-bit tune will come on announcing he has made it to the Boss Level.
We’re not supposed to feel politics from the gut, on the spot. Candidates are not applying a sensual massage (does it feel good here, or better over here?). As a voter, I reserve the right to spend plenty of time thinking about how the debate went, and I also retain the prerogative to change my mind. I don’t want to be told, ahead of time, that one team is going to the finals just because they got their cheerleaders were excited. All I ask is that I might watch a debate with two candidates in front of me, with only Jim Lehrer’s inky eyes as a distraction, and no facile opinion chart scrolling insidiously at the bottom of my screen.