How the Hype Became Bigger Than the Presidential Election

Blame the media for making whole generations hate The Process

mitt romney barack obama debate
SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages
Mitt Romney and Barack Obama participate in the first Presidential Debate.
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Well, it's over. Or almost over, thank God. It looks like Obama will probably win, which I guess is good news, compared to the alternative – a Mitt Romney presidency would have felt like four straight years of waking up with a naked Lloyd Blankfein sitting on your face. But it's not so much the result that matters – it's the quiet.

What we Americans go through to pick a president is not only crazy and unnecessary but genuinely abusive. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent in a craven, cynical effort to stir up hatred and anger on both sides. A decision that in reality takes one or two days of careful research to make is somehow stretched out into a process that involves two years of relentless, suffocating mind-warfare, an onslaught of toxic media messaging directed at liberals, conservatives and everyone in between that by Election Day makes every dinner conversation dangerous and literally divides families.

Politicians are much to blame for this, but we in the media have to take responsibility for the damage we do to the American psyche in the name of election coverage. At this very moment, there are people all over the country who are stocking up on canned goods and ammo for the apocalypse they believe will come if Obama is re-elected. For the broadcast business to be successful, viewers need to be not merely interested in our political melodramas, they have to be in an absolute state about them – emotionally invested in the outcome and frightened not to watch what happens next. And any person who's been subjected to 720 consecutive days of propaganda is not likely to take the news well if he gets the wrong result, whether it's a victory for Obama or for Romney. By that point, the networks have spent two years finding new ways each day to convince him that the world is going to disintegrate into some commie or Hitlerian version of Mad Max, to keep him coming back and watching ads.

The campaign should start and finish in six weeks, and there should be free TV access to both candidates. And it should be illegal to publish poll numbers. This isn't as crazy as it sounds – they actually had such a law in Russia while I lived there, and people were much happier. (Well, they were still miserable, because they were Russian, but at least they weren't stressing about poll numbers.) Think about it: Banning poll numbers would force the media to actually cover the issues. As it stands now, the horse race is the entire story – I can think of a couple of cable networks that would have to go completely dark tomorrow, as in Dan-Rather-Dead-Fucking-Air dark, if they had to come up with even 10 seconds of news content that wasn't centered on who was winning. That's the dirtiest secret we in the media have kept from you over the years: Most of us suck so badly at our jobs, and are so uninterested in delving into any polysyllabic subject, that we would literally have to put down our shovels and go home if we didn't have poll numbers we can use to terrify our audiences. Can you imagine if your favorite news network had to do stories like, "What is the Overseas Private Investment Corporation up to, and what do each of the candidates think about it?" That would be like asking Nineties-era baseball players to take the field without popping greenies – what, you mean play the game sober? Half the on-air talent would have to resign, or do ad work hawking reverse mortgages.

It obviously matters who gets to be president. And it's perfectly valid for us media types to advocate for the candidate we think is more qualified, based on our reporting. But the hype has gotten so out of control, it's become bigger than the presidency itself. In every race there are now not two but three dominating figures – the Democrat, the Republican and The Process, and we're raising whole generations who hate The Process far more than they like either of the candidates. Mainly for grim commercial reasons, we in the media manipulate people to stay wired on hate and panic-focused on the race for every waking moment, indifferent to how much this depresses the hell out of everyone. In doing so, we rob people of their patriotism and their desire to vote. If The Process is so clearly wrong, how right can the candidates be?

If we did this right, people would come out of presidential elections exhilarated, maybe even stoked to get involved in their local races for county sheriff or D.A. (Such races would likely have more of an impact on their day-to-day lives: For the most part, when it comes to our daily routines, the president might as well be on Mars.) Instead, most of us come out of the election exhausted, in desperate need of a couple of Ambiens and determined to spend the next two years buried in Hulu reruns, afraid to even pass a news channel while couch-surfing our way to Storage Wars or a Lifetime movie.

What makes us feel pessimistic about the world, ultimately, is the way the media encourage us to believe that our fate hangs on the every move of the promise-breaking, terminally disappointing Teflon liars in Washington. And that's a shame, because feeling optimistic shouldn't require turning off the TV or tuning out The Process. What we are witnessing, after all, is the world's greatest contest for power, an amazing fairy tale full of iconic moments that we'll watch no matter how much Sean Hannity or Chris Matthews screams at us. But it would be awesome, next time, if we could find a way to turn down the volume.

This story is from the October 25th issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1168: October 25, 2012
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