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Andrew Conte’s Focus on Media: Capitalizing on obsession with politics

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U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore looks at Fox News coverage of election returns with staff during an election-night watch party, Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017, in Montgomery, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
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Tribune-Review contributing writer Andrew Conte.

Each day seems like a new episode in a reality television show about our lives.

Americans over the past year have grown accustomed to waking in the morning to see what new twist has taken place in our collective drama. President Trump’s latest tweet might have taunted some foreign leader, embarrassed a member of Congress or called out NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem. We’ve become addicted to following social media for breaking developments, watching cable news shows where people shout about the story of the day, and talking about politics in our free time.

This month’s Alabama special election for a U.S. Senate seat became our latest national obsession. CNN’s John King dusted off his interactive digital maps to break down blue and red counties, and an NPR reporter talked politics with a Birmingham barber . People who barely can name their own state’s senators knew intimate details about Republican Roy Moore and the women who said he abused them as teenagers. I happened to be at a holiday party on election night; friends counted down the minutes until polls closed, then raced to pull out smartphones when the outcome seemed imminent.

Smart national media outlets have capitalized on our obsession.

Prime-time cable viewership on CNN, Fox and MSNBC surged to a high in 2016 by averaging nearly 5 million combined viewers , according to the Pew Research Center, a media think tank.

The networks have responded by trying to turn presidential politics into something that happens every year, rather than just once every four. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz continue to debate on television as if they’re still running for president a year after voters went to the polls. Someone should tell them they lost.

Print publications saw a surge in subscribers after last year’s election — as if suddenly, millions of Americans woke up afterward and remembered journalism. The New Yorker had its biggest month ever in January, when it added 100,000 subscribers. The New York Times passed the 3 million mark in paid print and digital subscriptions by February. The Washington Post, The Atlantic and even The Boston Globe set records.

Since HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” posted a YouTube clip of host John Oliver talking about the value of journalism, it has been watched nearly 9 million times. As one viewer commented: “You either pay for journalism or you pay for not having journalism.”

“The Post,” a movie about how newspaper journalists broke the Pentagon Papers story during the Vietnam War, has started getting Oscar buzz a month before it comes out. That should not surprise anyone after the success of “Spotlight,” another newspaper-based movie that won the Academy Award for Best Picture last year.

So, perhaps journalists should be thankful this holiday season for all the attention that has followed Trump’s election and all the fodder he has contributed to our national dialogue. But I worry, too, that we already have reached the point where few of us could survive without our daily fix.

Andrew Conte is the director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University.

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