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Oppenheim: Shallow Politics

Every weekday, I watch the Today Show from 7AM to 7:20. Mind you, I have a number of other sources for information, but the Today Show is my guilty pleasure, a blend of hard news, pop culture and schlock.

I’ll be honest... sometimes I enjoy the silly stuff. And I tell myself it’s important to watch a big morning TV show, because this is how lots of Americans form their opinions. Lots of studies say so – and that’s what’s got me worried.

Lately, about a third of my morning news diet is presidential politics. The time devoted to it is substantial - but not the content. It’s mostly Hillary’s emails and Donald’s mouth. Other candidates, like Bernie Sanders, barely get a mention.

What I do learn is Ben Carson doesn’t want a Muslim President, Trump is having a feud with Fox and Carly Fiorina is defending her face. In other words, the news is small – content that has less to do with candidates’ positions on policy and more to do with their behavior.

Analysis after the last two Republican debates wasn’t especially deep – it was mostly about how well any candidate could quip, fire back - and take on Trump. And speaking of Trump, to be fair, he’s a brand new political hurricane who, almost singlehandedly, has lowered campaign discourse to something resembling a series of schoolyard taunts. But I have to say it’s not all his fault.

Some media, hungry for viewers, love a good mud wrestle. Producers and editors may calculate they’ll get better ratings covering who’s insulting whom – rather than doing smart profiles on candidates and what they stand for.

What I’m trying to figure out is how much of this shallowness matters. On the one hand, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire might buckle down and do their homework with help from news media that steps up to the plate. There’s still time.

But on the other hand, the American process of picking a president is filtered through a relatively small number of states. We Vermonters vote on March 1st, Super Tuesday, but not until other contests have narrowed the field considerably on both sides.

Bottom line is the small stuff can have a big effect. And while I’ve had my fun watching news coverage that resembles a soap opera - enough already. On October, 13th, the Democrats take the debate stage. I’m waiting to see if they, and the media that covers them, will finally get serious.

Keith Oppenheim, Associate Professor in Broadcast Media Production at Champlain College, has been with the college since 2014. Prior to that, he coordinated the broadcasting program at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan (near Grand Rapids). Keith was a correspondent for CNN for 11 years and worked as a television news reporter in Providence, Scranton, Sacramento and Detroit. He produces documentaries, and his latest project, Noyana - Singing at the end of life, tells the story of a Vermont choir that sings to hospice patients.
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