Random Rants: The Media and “Debates”

Random rants about the media and last night’s VP “debate”:

1. There’s no evidence to support the proposition that VP debates affect the outcome of a Presidential contest, so last night’s outing was a fairly pointless exercise no matter how much sound and fury the media lavish on it. I tell myself this to help achieve some semblance of serenity, having reached that point in the election cycle known as “a plague on both your houses.”

2. VP and presidential debates usually are especially useless when the candidates talk over one another so that the viewers literally can hear only scraps of what’s being said (I’m looking mostly at you, Tim Kaine) or when they just fill up air time with lies or useless generalities. (I’m looking at you, Mike Pence. A “broad shoulder” foreign policy? Are you really saying the U.S. should intervene in Syria and get into a land war with Russia? Really? How’s that different from intervening in Libya? Contrast and compare.).

3. The media focus on “style” doesn’t help. In law school, I competed in regional and national moot court competitions, which are modeled after appellate arguments. Sometimes we watched videos of past competition rounds to get a sense of what worked and what didn’t. Once I watched a round with the sound off before I watched it with the sound on. One team appeared to be winning — until we turned the sound on and listened to their arguments, which were total …. let’s say horsepucky. I grant that much of human communication is done through vocal tone, facial expressions, and body language, so style does matter. BUT STYLE ISN’T EVERYTHING, you [expletive deleted] bimbos, male and female! We’re talking about the leadership of the free world, goddammit, so if you’re going to declare someone the winner 30 seconds after the debate ends, do it on substance, not “style.” That is, if you can recognize substance — and if you can’t, don’t declare a “winner” at all.

4. I am sick to death of the candidates and their surrogates talking over each other or just talking non-stop either to prevent the opponent from talking or to run out the time before the next commercial break. I know how to fix that: the Debate Commission and the talk shows need to invest in sound booths that allow the moderator or host to control what sound comes out. Give the candidate/surrogate time to answer the question, cut off the sound when the time is up, and then repeat the procedure with the other candidate/surrogate. And yeah, point out when the speaker hasn’t actually answered the question and have a chyron at the bottom of the screen calling out predictable, previously fact-checked lies.

5. Once upon a time, I was a reporter for a daily newspaper, so I’m generally a defender of the Fourth Estate. But its performance during this election has tried my patience. The electorate deserves better than what we’ve gotten, especially from cable “news” (I’m looking at you, CNN and MSNBC). Call a lie a lie, no matter who the liar is. Investigate the leading candidates with equal attention and vigor. Focus on the [expletive deleted] issues that matter to us little people: ARE the candidates going to try to remedy growing inequality? How? HOW are they going to do a better job of combatting ISIL? Have their tax/spend/cut proposals been vetted by independent sources? With what conclusions?

6. Finally, before the debate, I saw a cable news anchor interview a sorority woman from Longwood University, where the debate was held. The young woman was undecided and was hoping that the debate would provide her with some information on substance to help her make a choice. Fat chance. The problem for our democracy right now is that the media are largely complicit in helping candidates avoid substance. With the exception of a few print reporters, the media largely has treated the election as entertainment, not as the serious business that it is. David A. Farenthold of the Washington Post, who has dug up the facts surrounding the Trump Foundation, and Kurt Eichenwald of Newsweek, who has followed Trump’s money into foreign quagmires, have been shining examples of how the process ought to work. Cable “news”? Not so much.

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