So what might the death of politician-entertainer Fred Thompson and the complaints surrounding the recent CNBC debate have in common? Quite simply, they are proof that the line between politics and entertainment have disappeared, producing what I have called for 17 years a politainment culture where the lines between news, politics, and entertainment have disappeared.
Fred Thompson was a Republican US Senator and presidential candidate, as well as an actor most famous for his role as the Manhattan DA Arthur Branch in Law & Order. (Recall how the original DA Adam Schiff, played by Steven Hill was a takeoff of the real Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau). Less anyone forgets, Thompson served nobly as legal counsel to Senator Howard Baker during the Watergate hearings. Thompson glided easily between television acting and politics, with his presidential run, though unsuccessful, bolstered by his Law & Order fame. The point is that Thompson was able to use his acting, entertainment, and political skills and persona throughout his multiple careers, often making it difficult to separate fact from fiction, reality from drama, politics from entertainment.
Enter the CNBC Republican debate. The RNC has pulled out of future debates with NBC because of complaints of gotcha questions; they candidates more or less have said the same. Behind their sorted complaints is a simply one–the debate was not supposed to be a debate, it was supposed to be a staged media event. They candidates really did not want to be asked tough questions they simply wanted free air time and opportunity to say what they wanted without being grilled or held accountable for their actions. For them the presidential debate has turned into what the national conventions have become–choreographed infotainment for the party (the Democrats are the same with this expectation).
Yet somewhere along the way the reporters at NBC forget this. They came to the debate thinking it was, well a debate, and that they as journalists should ask real questions, sort of. By that, while on the one hand the CNBC reporters treated it like a real debate NBC too knew it was a media event and it had to sell time and generate an audience. One is not going to do that if you ask serious questions about the economy and national defense, or at least ask these questions in a serous way. Instead, the CNBC reporters asked questions in a style meant to provoke. After all, given the media success of the Fox and CNN debates, the ante had been upped and if CNBC did not continue in the pattern of good entertainment that the previous GOP debates revealed then the worst possible thing could have happened–ratings failure and irrelevance.
Both CNBC and the GOP candidates came to the debate last week understanding all this. Ostensibly it was a debate, in reality it was entertainment competing against other amusements such as the World Series. Fox was so criticized for the first debate and claims that it has become nothing more than the media arm of the Republican Army. Maybe that is its business plan, but do not forget that all the networks have a business plan that is basically blurring entertainment and politics. All of them face similar bottom lines. News divisions have become as dependent on the entertainment factor of politics as politicians have. Trump figured this out this year first, but Fred Thompson understood it years ago and his passing is simply a reminder of the how politics has evolved into politainment.