American Politics Has Been ESPN-ized - Denis Campbell

Uploaded by MidweekPolitics on 09.01.2012

David Pakman: Denis Campbell's Editor in Chief of "UK Progressive" Magazine, and he's here
to talk to us about a recent article he wrote, "The ESPN-isation of the United States Election",
which is really a good way to put what we see kind of in mainstream corporate media
coverage of politics, and particularly the debates have been a good indicator of this.
Tell us, Denis, what is... what do you mean by the "ESPN-isation"?
Denis Campbell: Well, what I've been seeing in most of the election coverage is this inability
to really have a discussion of any substance. If it can't fit into a 20-second package with
all of the highlights such as ESPN would do as part of their "SportsCenter" program, it's
not worth discussing. And it seems to be, on the part of at least the mainstream American
media, highly insulting.
One of the things I enjoy about doing programs here for BBC, ITV, and others is that you
actually are given a significant amount of time, a segment in which you can actually
discuss an issue and fully vet it, understand the issue, the questioners are usually fairly
well-informed on what's going on. And I don't see any of that, particularly with the news
actresses on Fox and some of the others where it just seems if I can make a breathless point
and say something over and over again, no matter whether it's true or false, it becomes
And I really think if we could get to a point in the discussion and the debates going forward
where we're actually talking issues of substance, it's going to be much better for everybody
making an informed decision. In fact, the polls are showing the electorate doesn't want
this sound-bite stark attack, they really want the politicians to stop attacking each
other and start discussing the really serious issues that face us all.
David: Yeah, well, it's interesting, because not all of the GOP candidates would even really
be capable of in-depth discussion, and they're kind of being given a pass because they never
really have to do that.
But I have a couple of different thoughts on what you're saying. I mean, in principle,
I agree, I agree with what you're saying, and my initial thought is well, let's look
at it piece by piece. Is this a result of what people are asking for? And you're saying
no, people actually want more in-depth discussion from candidates.
And if not, is there really blame? In other words, would we... Fox News, which has the
highest... even though their ratings dropped in 2011, they still command the most news
market cable share, they produce this type of kind of sound-bite news where it's infotainment,
a lot of stuff on the screen, but people do watch it. So in other words, if that wasn't
going to work for them, if it wasn't going to be profitable, they wouldn't do it. They
didn't necessarily push it on people, did they?
Campbell: No, I mean, there's always been the saying in the news biz that if it bleeds,
it leads. So if there is something that is salacious or titillating or filled with violent
content that you can actually say as an anchor, you know, you may want to take the young ones
out of the room, this content may not be appropriate for all viewers, that's a surefire guarantee
that everybody's just going to pull right up to the television set and see whatever
it is.
I call that sort of car crash theatre, you know, they tend to, in an automobile accident,
to put the vehicle strategically so no one can see in, but yet traffic stops on both
sides of the dual carriageway to look in and see, you know, what exactly, oh, let's see
the bodies, let's see the wreck. It's a macabre human fascination with things that are going
And if you look at all of the lead news stories of the last two weeks, they've all been focused
on everything that each candidate is doing wrong. Today we're savaging Romney over Bain,
we've savaged Gingrich, we've savaged Santorum, etc., over past positions that they've taken,
because that seems to be the way in which you get press, in which you get focus.
David: I also want to separate, though, the issue of length that a topic is discussed
with kind of the superficiality of it, because I mean, a perfect example would be our show,
right? I mean, we do two one-hour shows a week, plus our bonus content, because that's
kind of what our resources currently allow. If you take away the kind of commercial space,
we do about a 50-minute show, so our interviews end up being somewhere between seven and 11
Now, I would like to do longer interviews, and it would be great to do a half-hour interview
with someone, but however, then we only talk to one person, we don't get to a lot of other
topics that, you know, bring more audience in, which we need, right? We're trying to
self-sustain and grow the show.
So I think that we kind of have to separate between the goal... the means to the end being
having explosions and bugs on the screen and things of interest, and that there are still
legitimate limitations to what can be done within the format, right? Do you differentiate
between those two?
Campbell: No, I mean, "UK Progressive" Magazine is known for depth. We don't get huge numbers
of viewers, and quite frankly, at the end of the day, I'm not sure we want huge numbers
of viewers that just pop in and pop back out of the website.
What our readers tell us over and over again is that they like the fact that we will take
an issue and really go through it. We have a sustainability contributor from there in
the States, in New Jersey, by the name of Theodora Filis, who's developed quite a following
because of the depth to which she goes into issues such as fracking, such as GMO foods,
etc., and our readers want that.
Today on the call-in show that I did for the BBC, it was scheduled to be a 45-minute appearance
and then they were going to go on to another topic, but the producer came in midway through
and said hey, Denis, the board is completely lit up, people want to know more about the
U.S. election, what's going on, can you stay? We ended up being an hour and a half to almost
an hour 40 minutes of what was a three-hour show on one topic.
I think that the decisions that are taken by you, by your producers, by others, when
you have a good guest who's contributing good content, you then have to take the news director
sort of approach in which you say you know what? This is good, let's keep going with
it, because people are being informed.
When Gabby Giffords was shot a year ago, I did what was supposed to be a three-minute
stand-up interview for the BBC. We ended up going eight minutes because we were talking
about topics that were very emotional and were very, very much in-depth. We ended up
touching on the gun control issues, the whole political climate, the way in which Democrats,
Republicans, left and right talk to each other. And so if you have good content that is really
being well-received, you stay with it.
What I see, though, on the news networks in the States is that it's a prescribed time
limit. If it's going to be a three-minute, four-minute, five-minute segment, that's it,
we're going into a hard commercial break, we're out of here, that's it. There's very
few people out there, Rachel Maddow does this periodically, that will say can you stick
with us after the break? This is going very well, I'd like to discuss this more. And I
think that's what has to happen more for people to really become engaged and interested in
this campaign going forward.
David: To go back to the debates, which was kind of where we started, what is going to
drive a change in the depth of the debates in the United States? I mean, again, like
I said, a lot of the Republicans wouldn't be able to have a debate of any kind of depth.
Hopefully those are going to kind of be gone with the next upcoming primaries. Newt Gingrich
has suggested these Lincoln-Douglas-style debates with Barack Obama; it's unlikely they'll
really come to fruition. I don't know why, I just feel like in the end, they won't. Will
people drive it, or will candidates drive it, or the media?
Campbell: Well, the interesting thing was if you looked back to the 2008 campaign, it
was the first true internet campaign. It was the first true multimedia campaign we'd ever
seen for president.
And what was fascinating to most of us that were covering it was that we were able to
go online to see detailed position papers, to see actual full-length interviews of campaign
stops along the way for both President Obama, Hillary Clinton, as well as John Edwards,
who was in the race at this point in time. And you were really able to take a good measure
of the candidate and what it was they stood for and where they were likely to go.
The problem with... today is that I don't see a lot of the basic blocking and tackling
being done by the campaign staff. You know, you had that press agent for, what was his
name, Cantor, that interrupted a 60-minute interview with basically false facts.
We have a number of press people that are coming up in the ranks now that have grown
up in this period which we're currently in that don't do the digging, that don't do the
hard work. And you know, to have as your senior press spokesperson somebody who would dare
to interrupt the majority leader during the course of an interview is unprecedented as
well as just plain stupid.
We have a lot of press people that have forgotten on the staff side that their role is one of
staff, yet they still seem to think that they are the straw that stirs the drink and not
the candidate, and I think that's the beginning of the breakdown of the system as well.
David: Fascinating stuff. Denis Campbell, I encourage everyone to check out "UK Progressive"
Magazine. Your article is "The ESPN-isation of the US Election", you are the Editor in
Chief. A pleasure to speak with you again.
Campbell: Same here, and happy New Year to you, David.
David: OK, thanks.
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