Flashback to 2010 and the prospects were rather dim. By tradition (three decades of it), the Republican nomination was essentially assured to Mitt Romney. And he was basically boring and unelectable. Barack Obama’s Presidency wasn’t exciting, but it lacked any major disasters—no riots in the street, no drastic plunge into a depression or embarrassing failures—and he was generally well liked. Historically, for an incumbent, this means almost certain victory.
Why do you think both Michael Bloomberg and Sarah Palin stayed out of the race? Because they understood these facts.
What it really added up to was a potentially nightmarish situation for the media: a dull election with a very predictable outcome.
But somehow that’s not how it ended up.
Conveniently, what once appeared to be in the bag morphed into a horse race (despite none of the fundamental conditions changing). Miraculously the media was gifted with endless spectacle, controversy, and twists and turns.
Surely it cannot be said that Mr. Romney ran a stellar campaign. In fact, for most of the election he ran a campaign more embarrassing than anyone could have predicted. Nor can it be said that Mr. Obama ran a horrible one. He mostly stayed above the fray, the economy held steady during the critical months, and he killed Osama bin Laden.
No, what happened was an inevitable alignment of interests—media interests—that were not satisfied to cover a not-especially-lucrative fait accompli.
As Upton Sinclair once said, it’s so very “difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” The media business—paid in clicks and views and minutes—could not possibly accept that the whole thing was in the bag.
Considering that in an election cycle, television, newspapers, and blogs take in billions from advertising, receive spikes in audience, and generate free and easy news from campaigns, the lack of “understanding” is deliberate.
Let’s take a trip back in time:
Political blogs kicked things off in 2010. The reality of a barely contested Republican ticket could not be allowed to stand. Sites like Politico started following around “candidates” like Tim Pawlenty before he considered running—Talking Points Memo, Real Clear Politics and Huffington Post were highly incentivized to start the election cycle early because traffic spikes during elections. With lower standards for news, they introduced a steady stream of names for endless discussion online.
Pawlenty, Bachman, Paul, Gingrich, Cain, Gingrich again. Remember these names? Remember how important and real they seemed at the time. Where are they now? Oh right, back in the obscurity from which they were plucked.
Newspapers and television played their part too, of course. The web bred this cavalcade of clowns, but it was the mass media who paraded them in front of us. Each Republican candidate got their few minutes, each took their turn at the front like some fartlek run of idiots. It carried on until the media felt the public had tired of them—then each was destroyed by the machine that built them. A scandal, a gaffe, money troubles, whatever.
Only after the media had wrung out every drop of “news” from each of them—inflating every false second of hard-right ideological pot-stirring in order to polarize the pending contest between two moderates—could we focus on Romney. But only for a minute because then it was time to decide on a VP. Bring the clowns back out again!
Compared to Obama, Romney turned out to not be much of a candidate. I mean, here was a man—a One Percenter if ever there was one—who ran such a terrible campaign that the controversial issue of his religion hardly came up. Who needed it, what with the Olympics gaffe, airplane windows gaffe, the 47 percent gaffe, the “I like firing people” gaffe and the tax returns? That was entertaining for a while, but of course the 24/7 news cycle (and the infinite blog cycle) can only fill so much time with bemusement and scorn. Something else had to be done.
As Robert Wright successfully predicted, the debates were the perfect opportunity for the “Romney Comeback Narrative.” Obama flopped! He blew it! A week later, after we’d digested that: Joe Biden fired back with an “unforgettable” performance against Paul Ryan in the VP debate. And then what do you know, Obama regroups for the final two debates and comes back with some killer line about bayonets and battleships. To to any reasonable person (or as political scientist Brendan Nyhan observed, anyone whose thoughts weren’t polluted by listening to everyone else’s analysis) the fact that Obama’s performance, Romney’s performance and Biden’s performance were really just average made no difference. There must be conflict, it must be dramatic.
How else can Politico, Talking Points Memo, Huffington Post, and their brethren post dozens and dozens of blog items a day? Without incessant online buzz, what will the talking heads debate? What will the newspapers round up and review?
Romney polled ahead early but then suddenly it got close until he ultimately won the nomination. Obama polled ahead early but then suddenly it got close until he ultimately won the election. How well that worked out!
If reality does not support the economic demands of the news media—then reality can be changed. When everyone in the business wants certain kinds of events, those events must be willed into existence. And then we can chatter about them endlessly and sell ads against the ensuing din. And hope that it holds us over until a real news story like Hurricane Sandy can wash all the artifice away.
For the most part, I find the politics of Noam Chomsky to be abhorrent, but when it comes to analyzing the media he’s as good as they come. What I’ve described above was no overt manipulation, no puppet master pulling our strings. Instead, it’s what’s he called a Tacit Collective Action (or Tacit Conspiracy). When actors like Fox News and MSNBC, Drudge Report and Huffington Post share the same incentives and business model—despite their heated ideological differences—they cannot help but act in concert to further each other’s interests. Together, they can conspire and not even know it.
That’s what I see when I look at the last two-plus years of political and media coverage. I see individual actors—many of them good, hard-working reporters—react to the looming threat of a boring, low-key election by doing their little part to make sure that will never, ever happen. I see sincere voters on both sides being riled up and activated for false causes. (That is to say I fully acknowledge and understand that Romney has many real supporters. They have just been falsely strung along about their chances.)
But the media couldn’t change the results. Which, had you sat out the news coverage of the entire election, happened to turn out exactly how you would have guessed from the beginning. With a Romney nomination and an Obama victory.
How nice…for them.
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and a PR strategist for brands and writers. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanHoliday.