Is Your Debate Coverage . . . Profit Driven? Eh, Eh? Nudge Nudge, Wink Wink, Say No More   Leave a comment

The most useful mantra to block out the deluge of shitty political analysis between now and the election must be this: “the debates don’t matter.”

The debates don’t matter.

The debates don’t matter. 

(The author of the latter contributes to a group blog called The Monkey Cage, which may have the most consistently astute and data-driven political analysis of any source off- or on-line and should be checked at least daily; let it not be said I shut doors on political media consumption without opening a window.)

The debates don’t matter! For a whole host of reasons.  Fer instance: people tend to only pay attention to or remember things that re-enforce preconceptions; the types of people who pay attention to them have for the most part already made up their minds about their political choices; there’s just not a lot of content in them that hasn’t been widely available for months and months.  Etc.

Of course what’s true for presidential debates goes quintuple for vice presidential debates, the vestigial tail of the campaign season.

And yet, in The NYT: “After Mitt Romney’s momentum-shifting performance in the first presidential debate, the stakes were raised for the matchup between their chief surrogates.”

And yet, from Reuters: “U.S. vice presidential debates usually don’t matter much, but the October 11 showdown between Democratic incumbent Joe Biden and Republican challenger Paul Ryan could be an exception. Democrats are counting on Biden to blunt the momentum of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who has gained ground after a strong debate performance against President Barack Obama last week.”

And yet, from The Boston Globe: “Once anticipated as an entertaining sideshow between two feisty candidates, the vice presidential debate Thursday night has taken on higher, unexpected importance in the wake of President Obama’s listless performance last week in Denver.”

The previous debate wasn’t exactly equal, so this debate’s importance is magnified! Even though we explicitly acknowledge the debates don’t matter, this debate matters, for some reason!  Even Nate Silver, l’enfant terrible of sober stat-based analysis of polling trends, falls prey to the disease by just leaving this lump at the end of a post breathless in debate anticipation: “Political science research is divided on the impact of presidential debates — the one in Denver clearly seemed to matter quite a bit — but there is even less evidence that vice-presidential debates can sway voters.”

So . . . why?  Why obsess over triviality?  In some sense it answers itself: in order to get money you need viewers and readers and eyeballs.  Rage in the Cage II: The Vice-Presidenting ain’t gonna hype itself.  But there are less obvious undercurrents that carry debate coverage away from the Platonic ideal as well.

Take a look at those links again.  “Six Things to Watch For in Biden-Ryan Debate”; “Five Things to Watch in the U.S. Vice Presidential Debate”.  Those things are either issues that have been a part of the campaign for the past eighteen months (“medicare”; “foreign policy”) or utterly insubstantial wisps of banal gossamer (“zingers”!).

This is the work of lazy lazy people.  These columns do not inform anyone of anything.  There’s nothing here.  If the authors gave a crap about informing the public, they could write about the issues that each campaign needs to address to clear up ambiguity, statements that have contradicted each other, statements that have contradicted their professed ideals or values, etc.  But that would take, y’know, work, and couldn’t be crapped out in fifteen minutes by distilling the milquetoast and toothless coverage of the past eighteen months in five or six “things”.  One of which is “zingers”.

To be fair there are broader trends that interact with the laziness to produce this tripe.  Staffs are being reduced by forty, fifty, sixty percent.  As fewer and fewer people have responsibility for more and more content, the kind of coverage that consists of coating the most banal narratives of the campaign in beige paint becomes more and more the only kind of coverage that people can possibly make.

That also re-enforces another huge tendency of profit driven media: the obsession with “balance” and eliminating any hint of “bias”.  Because once actual reporting and analysis goes out the window the expedient thing is to act as stenographer for the campaigns.

“Mr. Ryan is prepared to vigorously set the record straight when he thinks the vice president is distorting, such as the charge that Mr. Romney has proposed $5 trillion in tax cuts directed toward the wealthy. “He’ll be in full attack mode,” Mr. Ryan said of Mr. Biden in an interview last week with The Weekly Standard, “and I don’t think he’ll let any inconvenient facts get in his way.”


The Romney campaign has stepped up its critique of the Obama administration’s foreign policy after last month’s attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions in the Middle East.


Obama campaign officials predicted that Biden, who spent time this week preparing at his Delaware home, would be focused and effective.

THANK CHRIST we now know that the Obama campaign thinks Biden will be focused and effective.  And once that stenographer’s hat gets put on, concerns about balance and bias start to take care of themselves: quote a little from campaign A and a little from campaign B and call it a day without actually informing anyone of anything.

Just as a further illustration of this, because it needs to be said: the NYT cheerfully lets its readers know that “Mr. Ryan has been studying for the debates under the tutelage of Dan Senor, an adviser to Mr. Romney on the Middle East.”  Why this Senor fella must be a pretty unobjectionable and respected guy if the Times is making a point of indicating his debate involvement.

You can guess what’s coming, I hope:

MENTORED BY BILL KRISTOL: “Beginning with Kristol, who is almost two decades his elder, Senor has flourished under the watch of a succession of father figures,” Tablet reported in a recent profile. Kristol, who led the charge into the Iraq war, has been so eager to bomb Iran that even George W. Bush mocked him as a “bomber boy.”

FLACKING FOR THE U.S. IN IRAQ: Remember those famous “rose-colored glasses” through which the Bush administration viewed the Iraq war — or, rather, used to present the Iraq war to the public? That was Senor, who flacked for the Coalition Provisional Authority through its disastrous reign over Iraq. Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran wrote in his book on the CPA that Senor, who was just 31 when he joined up, did “a masterful job of spinning the media.” He reported that Senor once told reporters: “Well, off the record, Paris is burning. But on the record, security and stability are returning to Iraq.”

There’s a lot more, like Senor declaring Romney’s support of an Israeli strike on Iran during the candidate’s trip there over the summer.

Now I’m just a small-town lawyer, but seems to me that this kind of information is pertinent when name-dropping advisors, and to not include any context like this when name-dropping advisors is to white-wash them and provide them unearned stature and gravitas to the uninformed reader they should not have.  But oh wait that’d be “bias”, wouldn’t it; much better to just provide a name with no context and not make waves.

To sum up: debates don’t matter.  They’re hyped as if they do for ratings; for laziness; for budget cuts; and for faux-objectivity.  Love of money is the root of all evil, and so necessarily also the root of the current disgraceful state of political coverage.

Posted October 11, 2012 by Ben in Uncategorized

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