The Debate Debate
Has Elvis left the building?
The campaign for this year’s Republican presidential nomination has featured some two dozen debates. Have the real winners been the American people, as the bromide insists? Far from it, according to two new studies—and journalists are to blame.
In a paper issued in January by Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, political consultant Mark McKinnon argues that the debate moderators of 2011 sometimes seemed more interested in stoking conflict than in eliciting meaningful answers—and the candidates weren’t given enough time for meaningful answers anyway. In addition, the surfeit of debates cut into candidates’ time with voters. McKinnon quotes Howard Fineman, editorial director of the AOL Huffington Post Media Group: “Debates have allowed the press to elbow their way in front of voters for commercial purposes.”
Complementing McKinnon’s research, media scholar Jay Rosen and his students at New York University analyzed the questions journalists asked at debates. During the 20 debates between May 5, 2011, and mid-February 2012, the NYU team counted 46 questions about social issues (abortion and gay rights), four about the Arab Spring, two about climate change, one about small business—and 113 about campaign strategy and negative advertising.
Of the 12 questions categorized as fluff, seven came from John King of CNN, who said he wanted to illuminate the personal side of the candidates. Puzzlers from King included “Elvis or Johnny Cash?” (Michele Bachmann refused to commit), “Leno or Conan?” (Rick Santorum said he doesn’t watch either one), and “Spicy or mild?” (Mitt Romney declared, “Spicy. Absolutely.”).
Rosen believes that the debates are part of a larger problem: The presidential campaign doesn’t address voters’ true concerns. Via polls, social media, and other tools, he and his students are learning what issues particularly animate the electorate this year. In turn, journalists from the London-based Guardian are using the NYU data to help direct campaign coverage for their American Web site. If Rosen and his team succeed, the Guardian will focus on issues that get slighted by more fluff-prone news outlets. More filling, less spicy.