Government Down, Ratings Up

The political landscape of today is a far cry from what it was just a few decades ago. Radio chats and newspaper headlines are obsolete in comparison to the speed and accessibility the Internet offers for political communication. This past week, headlines on every major network ringed “government shutdown”.

As usual, polarized politics have kept the Republicans and Democrats in gridlock as Congress disputes the budget and Obamacare. Inability to reach consensus has left millions of workers temporally furloughed, while others are unable to attend work at all. The turmoil of the national government continues as the shutdown advances into this week, which leaves us wondering, could the media be enjoying all this anxiety?

With the introduction of the 24/7 new cycle, cable networks are now in constant competition to fill news holes and beat competitors ratings. What is news, what is analysis, and what is entertainment are supposed to be notably different, yet the three are becoming harder for the public to differentiate between. Has the constant monitoring of the shutdown become the perfect manifestation for the media?

News networks’ websites are filled with headlines, sidebars, and blogs about the shutdown. Their social media sites are providing hourly updates of Congress, urging people to follow the bombardment of links going to their website articles. And their programming has become a mixture of analysis and entertainment as their “bipartisan” debate on the subject often features a right-wing versus left-wing commentator “discussing” (yelling) their opinions.


As outlets continue to label the shutdown as a “showdown”, it becomes evident horse race journalism is no longer only applicable during election coverage, but has transcended into the way politics are viewed and reported every day.

Matthew C. Nisbet describes the reporting style and its features. Horse race journalism focuses predominantly on which players are most adept at gaining power while undermining the chances of the opponents. Rather than foregrounding the context of political issues or policy proposals, journalists focus on: who’s ahead and who’s behind in the policy battle, the primary persons involved, and the shifting tactics that are employed.

Polling and public opinion surveys are central feature in horse race journalism. Claiming they supply “objective” data, reporters use the results to define who is winning while gaining additional news pegs for the reasons of such successes or failures.

Public opinion surveys act as a competitive advantage in the news marketplace, filling the demand for “anything new” in the 24 hour coverage cycle. “Polls say” and “Poll show” headers allow journalists to make their own independent attributions without relying on consensus of experts. As a result, a constant emphasis arises between sets of ideologies and/or sets of political actors.

Almost every major news network has been asking its viewers and readers to chime in on “Who’s to blame?”

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Rather than explaining policy, media outlets have framed the shutdown into a simplistic game of winners v. losers, Democrats v. Republicans, Obama v. Congress. Outlets are then using their polling results to create further news articles that act as nothing more than a survey report.

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Their strategy has not been in vain.  During prime-time, Monday through Thursday of the past week, ratings for CNN were up 68%, MSNBC up 54%, and Fox up 49%. As viewers continue to tune in, we are left begging the questions: Is the press providing an informative medium for exercising the public’s right to know? Or has the shutdown turned into another political spectacle for media to cash in on?

– Savannah Valade