A look at how TV covered the first 2012 Presidential debate (written for BECA 460, News In Broadcast And Electronic Media, August 2012)
I watched the first presidential debate on KGO-TV (ABC) for this exercise. The program was hosted by Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos. After the debate itself, Sawyer and Stephanopoulos were joined by Matthew Dowd and Donna Brazile, with former Obama economic advisor Austin Goolsbee and former McCain/Palin campaign advisor Nicolle Wallace on remote feed.
First, I was struck by Sawyer’s giddy demeanor throughout. She appeared to be covering the event as entertainment news, gushing over the candidates’ families appearing with them onstage while complaining that the debate featured “a lot of numbers” and giggling continuously throughout the discussion. (Is she always like this?) In contrast, Stephanopoulos maintained basic professionalism in his role as cohost.
A consensus was reached very quickly by the panel: Romney had “won” the debate, Obama seemed distracted, and debate moderator Jim Lehrer let himself be overrun by the candidates. What I saw happening in the debate was a little different. Obama would try to address a previous statement of Romney’s and Romney would claim that he had never said such a thing and accuse Obama of misquoting him. It was a strange dance, and the President occasionally looked flustered. I hope he is better prepared next time.
Other commentators were brought in. Jake Tapper saw a lackluster Obama, and loved Romney’s “zingers” and “policies”. (Goolsbee, on the other hand, thought Obama’s best moment was when he challenged Romney about these policies that he refused to elaborate on: “What are your secret plans?”) David Muir was impressed by Romney’s anecdotes. Brazile also said that she thought it was “great” that the candidates talked about women. (Apparently, telling a story about a woman you talked to at a campaign stop counts as addressing women’s issues.) George Will thought that Romney scored with his attack on the Independent Payment Advisory Board, which would supposedly “ration” healthcare. Will’s assertion was, of course, not challenged, presumably because to do so would not have been “objective”.
The post-mortem discussion was focused on how well the candidates performed, rather than analyzing what they were saying. Words like “fair” or “subjective” vs. “objective” are hard for me to apply here. What I saw was a group of professional pundits whose main commitment was to maintaining a narrative about the race being “close”. They needed Romney to look good last night in order to maintain that suspenseful, entertaining narrative. The actual impact of their respective policies and the truth of their statements were trivial compared to the all-important horse race.
Sawyer announced that the network would do some fact-checking, and brought on correspondent Jonathan Karl, who critiqued one statement by each candidate and pronounced both “mostly fiction”. I wondered why we were treated to a misleadingly tokenistic ritual of “fact-checking” here; would a detailed examination of Romney’s higher levels of dishonesty in the course of this campaign violate their sense of “balance”? I Googled Mr. Karl and found an article on the Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting website (http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=4323) that asserts that Karl got his start in journalism through the Collegiate Network, a conservative group that supports right-leaning college journalists and assists them in their postgraduate careers. That would seem to take care of the objectivity question.