BY CARLA DE LANDRI
Our national conversation about current politics has been dumbed down and dehumanized by metaphors from the world of sport. Not one writer, correspondent, or anchorperson at one network, newspaper, or outlet is solely to blame. The fault and responsibility is shared by all who equate politics with games or contests, candidates as winners or losers, and outcomes as scores.
A small, subjective, and totally random sample shows Meet the Press anchor Chuck Todd highlighting an occasional segment called EndGame in which he asks guests to “tackle” a question.
Even the guests on the show succumb to the same facile phrases. Democrats are described as being on the defense or offense and whether or not they can go 0-4 in the Senate. Another guest describes those same Senate elections as red jerseys versus blue jerseys.
And while Meet the Press has lots of company in the politics-as-sport phenomenon, add this to the list: Nate Silver, editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight appearing on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, talked twice in the same breath about the House election using the language of football: “Yeah, for sure. So look at who is playing defense and how much defense they’re playing.” Then seconds later just to be sure the audience heard: “Democrats are playing a lot of defense in states that they currently hold.” Sound familiar? Where have we heard that before?
I thought we were in the clear once the midterms had passed and my hope was that the sports talk would head to the lockers, at least for a while. But no…. one Friday night in the space of an hour, I heard it again, two new examples that made my ears ring and had me screeching at the TV.
On the PBS NewsHour, New York Times columnist David Brooks said in characterizing Rep Nancy Pelosi’s uncontested bid for House speaker,” It’s sort of hard to lose a football game when there is no other team and so she had that advantage, there was no other team.”
Little more than one hour later on CNN’s AC 360, former US Attorney Preet Bharara spoke with anchor Anderson Cooper about a possible presidential pardon of Michael Cohen, adding, “There needs to be other evidence too for this to be a, you know, slam dunk situation.
Lest anyone think that the new year would bring retirement for the tired sports metaphor, even as the government shutdown came to a temporary close, a journalist praised Speaker Nancy Pelosi for not doing a happy dance in the end zone. Another discussed which party was playing offense or defense. Please save it for the Super Bowl.
When we frame politics as a game we all lose. We lose our humanity, our compassion, and empathy. Human beings, people with names and faces, are on the other end of these so called “contests.” Politics is not a game of us versus them. It is about Central Americans tear-gassed at our border as they seek new lives and new opportunities. It is about thousands of Americans in desperate need of medical care including those who need help with mental health and addiction issues. It is about children separated from their families and lingering in detention camps. It is also about federal workers standing on food lines as they make due without pay. The challenge is to think about politics as more than just a game. And if we can do that, perhaps we can focus on progress instead of prematurely starting to “handicap” the 2020 “race.”
Carla De Landri, Emmy-winning journalist, produced at ABC News for decades, and reported on the Gulf War, US political campaigns, the Tiananmen Square uprising, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. She and her team were the first to break the story about sexual assault at the US Air Force Academy and uncovered inhumane labor practices faced by women in clothing factories. Since ABC, Carla has pursued a wider portfolio as a media consultant. For impactmania, Carla is writing a monthly column on media and news.