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The 2016 presidential campaign has become a giant reality show

The cable news networks have a hit on their hands.

If you are a political junkie like I am, you will have noticed that, for months now, the news on CNN, Fox and MSNBC has been dominated by the presidential campaign. Dominated may be too mild a word, actually, since on many evenings the cable news programs offer nary a word about any development outside the American election.

CNN has long been notorious for jumping from one obsession to another -- a murder trial, a terror attack, a snowstorm -- but this is beyond a two- or three-week fixation with a disappearing airplane. No story that I can think of has gotten as much prolonged attention as the never-ending tale of the 2016 campaign.

Donald Trump deserves a lot of credit for this development. His entry into the presidential race stirred up interest early on. The ex-reality-TV host’s big-mouthed braggadocio transformed the process of choosing the next commander in chief into the biggest reality show of them all. Once voters -- or should I say viewers? -- began tuning in for reports about Trump’s daily antics, they got hooked, not only on The Donald, but on the full cast of characters.

There’s the white-haired Larry David look-alike shouting about revolution and giving the most famous woman on Earth a run for her money. There’s the sleepy-eyed brain surgeon saying weird things about pyramids. There’s the boyish Cuban guy getting shut down by the fat bully from New Jersey. There’s the scion of a political dynasty blowing a mountain of money trying to convince people that he’s not the most boring man in America. There’s the slick-haired renegade senator from Texas refusing to disavow preachers who say gays and abortionists deserve to die. And so many others!

Since the Republican candidates first went at each other last summer, the ratings for political debates have topped the audience numbers for most other programs on TV. It is no surprise that the cable networks have hitched their wagons to these stars. By entertainment industry metrics, the campaign is a blockbuster. Why waste airtime talking about misery in Syria or the faltering Chinese economy or some other bypassed story when people are so eager to hear who insulted whom on the campaign trail?

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It is great that so many Americans are taking an interest in politics, although the amount of hot air being expended by the army of veteran talking heads and callow young reporters on cable news could melt what is left of the world’s glaciers. As fledgling pundits angle with the old established squawkers to find a perch in the Beltway birdcage, a lot of conventional wisdom and utter obviousness drops to the ground.

The heightened attention this year has only exacerbated the media’s tendency to cover the presidential campaign like a horse race while failing to delve into the deeper issues and deep backgrounds of the candidates. Really, the horse-race metaphor is inadequate when it comes to TV news. There it is more like a crowded Miss Universe contest crossed with a 50-round MMA cage match in which speculation about who is toughest, most popular or least appealing never stops.

A nitpicker might observe that there is not much real reporting going on amid all this talk, talk, talk, but why quibble in the midst of a campaign carnival that has created a show business opportunity like none before? It’s the ratings, baby!


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