By Gene Lyons
To anybody who watches cable TV news, it's clear that the nation has embarked upon a great political experiment. Its object would be instantly clear to readers of Neil Postman's 1985 classic "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business."
To wit, is it even possible for a democratic country to govern itself when news becomes "infotainment," and infotainment, news?
At any given moment, one of two TV "news" stories predominates to the exclusion of all other topics: Donald Trump and terrorism. CNN has covered almost nothing else since the tragedy in San Bernardino. Tune in any time, day or night, and it's either Trump, terror, or panels of talking heads discussing them.
Meanwhile, the network has been running a countdown clock in the corner of the screen keeping viewers appraised of the weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds leading to the Dec. 15 GOP debate -- as if it were a moon launch or, more appropriately, a pay-per-view professional wrestling match.
In between live broadcasts of Trump's speeches, advertisements feature full-screen photos of the contestants dramatically lit like WWE stars promoting the upcoming Showdown in Las Vegas -- the final Republican debate of the year!
Cue Michael Buffer: "Let's get ready to RUMBLE ... "
OK, so there will be something like 84 more debates in 2016. It's nevertheless your patriotic duty to feel the excitement.
Or not. Actually, I see where the noted scholar and media critic Charles Barkley has beaten me to it. The famously outspoken basketball jock was recently asked his opinion of the GOP debates on TNT's "Inside the NBA."
"To be honest with you, CNN has done an awful job this election, an awful job. They have followed ratings and sound bites this entire cycle," Sir Charles opined. "I love CNN because they're part of our company, but they've been kissing butt, chasing ratings ... They follow every single sound bite just to get ratings for these debates. It's been sad and frustrating that our company has sold its soul for ratings."
(CNN and TNT are subsidiaries of Turner Broadcasting.)
However, it's not just CNN. The TV networks generally, where most Americans get their news, have abandoned all pretense of public service in the drive for enhanced market share.
Quick now: Which cable network has covered Trump the most assiduously?
Surprise, it's MSNBC. According to figures cited by Washington Post blogger Jim Tankersley, the allegedly left-wing network has mentioned The Donald some 1,484 times during the current campaign. That's roughly 100 more mentions than CNN, and three times as many as Fox News.
Like CNN, MSNBC often breaks away from live programming to broadcast Trump speeches live -- something neither network does for any other candidate, Republican or Democrat. That's free campaign advertising no politician can afford to buy. The second most commonly cited Republican, Chris Christie, has drawn 144 mentions on CNN; the rapidly vanishing Jeb Bush, 88.
In a 17-person GOP race, fully 47 percent of TV mentions have gone to Trump since he announced his candidacy last June. Is there any wonder the bombastic New Yorker is leading in opinion polls? His is apparently the only name many low-information voters can recall.
Look, Trump gives good TV. Under ordinary circumstances, for example, my sainted wife would prefer undergoing a root canal to a GOP presidential debate. I'm forced to record the fool things for professional purposes. Trump, however, she'll watch, if only in the hope he'll humiliate some rival fraud. Multiply her by a few million, and you're talking real advertising dollars.
The New York Times, whose editors apparently have no TVs, recently devoted considerable column inches to the seeming mystery of "High Polls for Low-Energy Campaigners."
Specifically, how come JEB!, who normally does multiple campaign events every day, appears to be getting nowhere, while Trump, a comparative homebody, surges?
Um, let's see: "Morning Joe" in the a.m., followed by "Good Morning America," a sit-down with CNN's Chris Cuomo, a face-to-face with NBC's Chuck Todd, who basically calls Trump a barefaced liar but invites him back for "Meet the Press," next a blustering speech covered live by MSNBC's "Hardball," followed by "Breaking News!", then a pre-recorded interview with Don Lemon.
And then to bed.
Would it also surprise you to learn that according to the Tyndall Report, which compiles such figures, "ABC World News Tonight" has devoted 81 minutes of programming this year to Trump's campaign versus 20 seconds total to Bernie Sanders, who arguably has more supporters? (Each has roughly 30 percent support in his party, but there are many more Democrats than Republicans.)
In my judgment, neither Trump nor Sanders has a very good chance of becoming president. But that shouldn't mean an exclusive diet of Trump's bombast, braggadocio, conspiracy theories and barefaced lies simply because the one-time "reality" star gets good ratings.
Is the United States a democratic republic or a TV series?