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Why did America let TV take over presidential elections?

Jeff Simon

Abraham Lincoln said it best. But then, he made a habit of doing that.

"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you really want to test a man's character, give him power."

A cruel test has just been performed on the American character, which had to endure impotence at its ugliest so that television could test its political omnipotence. The American public withstood the loathsome and nauseating adversity of watching 20 candidates for the highest office America has be treated by television worse than Macon, Ga., cable access TV probably treats its dogcatcher.

The major losers were the candidates while Jake Tapper, Dana Bash, Don Lemon and CNN itself revealed the worst possible "character." Seldom have TV watchers had to witness presumably intelligent and professional journalists misuse power so crassly for four hours spread out over two nights.

It pains me to say that about Tapper, because once upon a time he was only a very good writer for Salon. I enjoyed and admired his work.

No one could possibly admire what he and his CNN interrupters did during two nights of presidential candidate debates. The debate rules – One-minute answers! Seconds to respond! – made it impossible to "moderate" the debates well, but even then, all three did their jobs badly, especially Bash and Lemon, who both actually seemed to think they were doing God's work while they were interrupting real answers from some of the better people among us.

There wasn't a single moment over all four hours where I didn't wish the CNN interrupters – who had been given the right to shut anyone up they jolly well pleased – would suddenly realize the incomparable gift of silence and let some superb people talk.

That's right, I said superb people.

Long ago, I learned from covering pols and marrying into a political family, that politician is often the most unfairly trashed occupation in America.

The number of politicians who actually want to do good – or at least do right – is not small.

No, H.L. Mencken was not wrong to refer to their sleazier shenanigans as a "Carnival of Buncombe," but it actually seemed to me only a fool could listen to those voices spread out over two nights and not want to hear more – not less – from each and every one of them.

And much less from Tapper, Bash and Lemon, who almost instantly turned into cartoon buffoons from Warner Brothers' "Termite Terrace" in the '40s (Bugs, Daffy, Elmer Fudd, Tweety and Sylvester).

At the end of two nights of the Democratic National Committee's version of political "wabbit season," I couldn't help feeling the people I'd heard struggling and losing their dignity were a pretty good cabinet for whoever got the top job.

At one point, early on, it occurred to me the job of "moderator" was far from a coveted one in the world of TV news. Perhaps it was one that everyone sprained ligaments running to avoid. If so, I'd suggest all three fess up as quickly as possible for the state of their reputations.

I began to think at first that others – Wolf Blitzer, perhaps? – might have treated the candidates with more respect and empathy and far less self-righteous verbicide.

Bullying others' free speech is one of the oldest abuses of power in the human species. It is the single-most important reason America is the greatest miracle in the history of civilization – that holy and magnificent and singular creation, the First Amendment.

But for the sake of one of America's reigning media bullies – television – we watched a stupid, godawful format that constantly permitted journalists to shut off brilliant and heartfelt ideas from superior human beings who may actually have wanted to do right. They all looked like second-rate squabbling fools most of the time. (One plainly good wisecrack came from Kirsten Gillibrand, who pledged her first official act as elected president would be to "Clorox the oval office.")

I am, no doubt, a hopelessly old-fashioned fellow still reliant on ideas of courtesy. I grew up, after all, during the presidential trinity of Truman/Eisenhower/Kennedy. It was the American presumption at that time that presidents were, if not always smarter than us, at least more earnestly interested in the commonweal than the rest of us.

As I listened to 20 21st century candidates gruesomely fight to be heard over the course of two nights, there were almost no times I wanted a candidate to shut up – not even the ones I wasn't fond of.

On the other hand, there wasn't a single moment where I didn't long for blessed silence from CNN's trinity of designated interrupters.

That, to put it as plainly as possible, stinks. It's also bad television and a catastrophically stupid way to treat the American presidency.

Make no mistake. It is television, more than any other single factor, that gave us our current administration.

Please remember that current CNN poobah Jeff Zucker was at NBC when Mark Burnett oozed through the front door with "The Apprentice" under his arm. Please also remember that CNN's response to the mind-boggling vulgarity of Donald Trump during the 2016 election debates was to squeeze the rancid lemon for every drop of ratings hegemony, the welfare of America be damned.

The end result of the Zucker-ing of the American political process were those horrendous two summer nights from the summer of 2019 when we watched politicians with the best of intentions cosseted, bullied and bounced around by a medium and its minions who seemed to think those pols were the same as the walking selfie sticks of reality TV.

All for the sake of ratings and ad bucks.

Did the candidates deserve better? Yes. So did we. Heaven help me, I still think we do.

But it's getting harder to believe that.

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