Thursday, October 2, 2008

Before the second debate

I've been watching presidential debates, and the press coverage of them, for quite a few campaigns now, and I despair of the talking heads ever getting it right. There really are only two things that attract attention at this point, style and gaffes, and pretty much every mainstream commentator will focus on just those two points.

Style is seen as unflappability, graciousness, and smoothness, the ability to answer questions without flinching. It's something that every decent college debater has mastered, but that doesn't prevent the press from being amazed at a candidate's handling of "tough" questions (that they've been preparing for over a period of days or weeks).

Gaffes are more interesting. If something is seen as a core belief, no matter how painfully wrong, expression of it will not be seen as a gaffe. Sarah Palin can stand up tonight and tell us that the world was created in 4004 B.C., and that will be discussed by the pundit class as a legitimate exposure of her beliefs. On the other hand, let Joe Biden say that Kirkuk is in Afghanistan, and, even if he quickly corrects himself, that will be pounced on as evidence of unfitness for office.

I'm not exactly sure who gets to decide what things are gaffes and which are not. More importantly, if the press corps is going to weigh in with their "analysis" of who did well and who didn't, they should be required to deal with the substance of the answers that are given.

But they won't. There might be a very brief segment on "fact-checking," but that will come and go with the wind, and we'll get back to hearing about Biden's tie, and Palin's smile, and who exceeded expectations, and so forth.

The press would defend themselves by saying that surveys "prove" that style and gaffes are what voters care about, that it's those things viewers remember. Whether or not that's true, the press might want to see itself as elevating the discussion, rather than pandering to the basest instincts of their audience. (On the other hand, my local newspaper has just turned itself into a snarky, list-based, color-filled replica of USA Today, so I gather that elevation is no longer the first priority of the working press.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i stopped reading the local paper five years ago, and stopped watching t.v. entirely about ten years ago. you can only "despair" so long! perhaps you find such positions idiosyncratic. perhaps you prefer to languish!

like i languish here. believe me i see the paradox!

but if you're truly great, you'd read great news sources, you'd find a great job where you're respected, and you'd have great readership of your great blog.

feeling superior to easy targets is more fun. local papers and t.v. news are vapid, dumbing it down? that's your big revelation? when did this thought first occur to you?

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