Message to the Media: Electing a President Is Not Boxing

rubio v trump
Photo from CNN broadcast.

This piece was originally published on Political Wire.

Let the political pundits and color commentators call the latest Republican presidential debate contentious, hostile, fiery and personal, as it truly was.

But how unbecoming for our democracy that we are judging which candidate should be occupying the highest office of our land based on who had the best put down, insult, or one-liner at the debate.

The debate post-mortem media analyses are filled with columns on who won and who lost. But rather than see the debate as an opportunity to get a measure of the candidate’s judgment, temperament, and approach to complex issues, we read instead about who “savaged” whom, which candidate “rattled” the other, who threw the most “punches” and who got the best “hit” on the other guy.

That boxing has become a metaphor for electing a president should trouble us all. Columnists evaluate which candidate hit the canvas, got knocked down or knocked out, and one Washington Post writer even posted a clip from Rocky IV.

Even if the candidates themselves descend into vitriol and pugilism, the media should not enable them by validating these attacks as if they had anything to do with fulfilling the responsibilities of the presidency. Journalism diminishes itself if it plays the role of a judge at a blood sport, awarding points based on who threw a left hook and who counter-punched well.

We are in the midst of a serious election, and the press should be helping us evaluate which candidate is best equipped to deal with the challenges we face as a nation and world.

Who has the judgment and character to deal with external threats to our nation? Who will best blend our tradition of pluralism with a determination to fix our broken borders? Who has the best insight into the role government can play in stimulating our economy and addressing inequities? Who can best bend the curve on our health care costs?

Candidates understand that they will get cut out of the debate storyline if they stick with issues and delve into details. So the strategic ones play the game by one-upping each other and trying every rhetorical trick to throw their opponents off balance. They offer up rehearsed attacks and kryptonite nuggets from their opposition research files.

Spectacles like these may draw us in as entertainment. But they leave us with little evidence as to who is best qualified to serve as leader of the free world.

Even if we can’t demand better of our candidates, we should expect better from our press. Rather than reinforcing the attacks, the media should be focusing on which candidate demonstrated the character, perspective, and cognitive abilities to handle the presidency.

Electing a president is not boxing. Shame on the candidates for pretending it is. Shame on the media for playing along. And shame on us — for the guilty pleasure we take in acquiescing to it all.

Lenny head shot 2014A former speechwriter and strategist for causes, candidates, and members of Congress, Leonard Steinhorn has written two books on American politics and culture and frequently writes for major print and online publications. He is currently a professor of communication at American University and a CBS News political analyst.

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