Don’t Let The Media Control Your Experience of Election 2016

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GOP 2016 Debate_Mora_0If you’re already feeling woozy from the roller coaster ride of Election 2016, you’re not alone. This ride has featured early twists and turns, highs and lows, and yet – as the Carpenters once sang – “we’ve only just begun.”

I have friends who get worked up about politics. They are constantly checking on their favorite candidates, sneaking peeks at the latest polls, and promoting their candidates’ interviews with cable news hosts.

I have other friends who don’t want to talk about the election season until a couple months beforehand. They get worked up too, but in a different way — all this political stuff makes them anxious. They wish they could live in a cave until it’s time to enter the voting booth.

Election season can be difficult for both kinds of people. Those who have already settled on a candidate worry where the election roller coaster ride is taking them. They have a pit in their stomach every time there’s a big drop, or when they see another campaign riding high. Those who are weary of the politicking wish they weren’t on the ride at all. Doesn’t it seem like this ride gets longer every 4 years? they ask.

Journalists Want Your Eyeballs

For both sets of friends – those who love the thrill of political wrangling and those who hate to pay attention, allow me to pass on a word of wisdom I received from my father a few years ago: Don’t let the media control your experience of an election season.

Four years ago, when the Republican party’s nomination process seemed like a game of Whack-a-mole, with a new front-runner rising up every month only then to be squashed, I remember Dad saying: Trevin, it’s in the media’s best interest for there to be many candidates, and for those candidates to surge and then fall. When they build up a candidate, there’s a story about the rise. When they tear down a candidate, there’s a story about the fall. Why settle for one interesting story when you can have two?

That conversation has stayed with me. It reminds me that one of the biggest forces in an election year isn’t the candidates themselves but the journalists who want to win your eyeballs — on print pieces, online articles, television talk shows, or viral videos. There are more stories available to journalists when there are multiple candidates grappling for power and prestige.

Watch Them Rise, Watch Them Fall

Imagine this election cycle if the Republicans mirrored the Democrats (a frontrunner with a challenger or two). That scenario wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic as what we have right now — more than a dozen people running, each with interesting stories, debatable records, and a certain appeal to some segments of society.

It’s true. A lengthy nomination season for the parties is a boon to journalists covering all this stuff. Last month, Donald Trump helped the first presidential debate shatter records for cable TV viewing. It’s in the media’s best interest for The Donald to be a contender for as long as possible so that he’ll be included in the next Republican debate. Then, whenever the bottom falls out of Donald Trump’s campaign, the media will be there, eager to report on his stumble back down the mountain.

I am not saying there is a coordinated strategy among journalists to prop up candidates only to rip the rug out from under them once “their time is up.” My point is simply this: media pundits and news organizations have a vested interest in telling stories with interesting, controversial people… and the longer that can go on, the better it is for them. (It’s not every day you can lead with “Donald Trump Proves His Hair is Real” as a headline!)

Beyond the Hype

As Christians, we should be neither panicked nor indifferent about the election cycle. We ought to follow the news with a critical eye, savvy enough to see how media interests play a role in our experience and the candidates’ future. We must be able to step back and see beyond the hype. We should be the ones most interested in substantive conversations with family, friends and neighbors about the issues that matter most and the candidates who represent those positions well.

When Christians fall captive to clickbait and jump from candidate to candidate depending on the polls, we abandon our responsibility as thoughtful and convictional people. We get swept up into the whirlwind of media hyperactivity, when we should be solid as a rock, looking beyond the hype to the substance behind a candidate’s proposals.

So, friends, step back. Get some perspective. Take a deep breath. And settle in for a long and winding, often entertaining, election season. After all, we’ve got a long way to go.

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