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“Let’s Not Get Carried Away Here”: Get Ready For The Raw Lunacy Of The Media’s 2016 Debate Coverage

If you live in Washington, where herds of journalists and pundits lope across the landscape in search of political events to opine on, you’ve probably noticed a tingling in the air. Yes, Thursday night is the first primary debate of the 2016 election, when the answers to so many burning questions will come into focus.

So I want to plead with my fellow denizens of the media: Let’s not get carried away here.

I say that not because I don’t think this debate will matter, but because I fear it might matter too much. If history is any guide, a relatively small number of political junkies will actually watch the thing — after all, who in their right mind tunes into a primary debate 15 months before the election? The potential problem isn’t in what happens during the debate, but what happens after.

This debate has been the source of even more speculation than the first of previous elections, for one important reason: Not everyone gets to come. The Republican field currently contains a remarkable 17 contenders (more actually, if you count some people you’ve never heard of and who haven’t held elected office before but have declared themselves candidates). Since a debate with that many participants would barely give each of them a time to talk, Fox News decided to limit the number to 10.

By my count, there have been approximately three zillion articles and TV news stories on the question of which candidates will make the cut. And the presumption is always that if they don’t make it into that debate, then they’ll be forever consigned to second-tier status, ignored by the media as their campaigns sink even lower than they already are.

Which might well be true. But it doesn’t have to be that way. That’s a product of choices that we in the media will make about who we pay attention to. There’s no law that says we have to ignore somebody because they didn’t appear in that first debate. (Fox will be airing a kind of consolation debate with the other seven, which is being referred to as the “kids’ table.” Unless one of them strips naked and performs a sword-swallowing act, don’t expect reporters to care much about what goes on there.)

Let’s look at the candidates who didn’t make the top-10 cutoff: Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, George Pataki, and Jim Gilmore. One sitting governor, one sitting senator, three former governors, one former senator, and a former corporate CEO. As a liberal, the thought of any of them becoming president might fill me with dread, but you can’t say they’re not a serious group. Nor can you say they’re any less qualified than the ones who did make the top 10. Is Perry, who was governor of the country’s second-largest state for 14 years, less of a real candidate than Ben Carson, a retired doctor who has never held public office? Is Jindal, who has been an executive branch official, a member of Congress, and a governor, less of a genuine contender than Mike Huckabee, who spends most of his time these days hawking biblical cancer cures?

Choosing the candidates who will be on the stage may have been a problem with no good solution, because any means of deciding between the guy at number 10 and the guy at number 11 would seem unfair. But that’s exactly why reporters shouldn’t assign any meaning at all to the lineup of this debate.

And they ought to take as measured an approach as possible to what actually occurs during the debate itself. Debate coverage is seldom all that enlightening, and it usually has the function of creating self-fulfilling prophecies. Journalists pick out one or two key moments (a screw-up, a particularly creative zinger) and say, “This is what will have an impact.” Then they proceed to replay and repeat those moments over and over, to the point where they’re all anyone remembers — and for most people, they’re all anyone ever saw. Then they say, “Candidate Smith couldn’t escape his debate gaffe when he picked his nose on camera” — and of course he couldn’t escape it, because you kept talking about it.

So by all means, let’s report on this debate, as we will on the others that will be coming up later. Let’s analyze what happened there, and try to determine what was interesting or revealing or edifying — I certainly will. But let’s try to keep it in perspective. There’s lots of time left, many other debates to come, and plenty of opportunities for these many candidates to rise and fall — so long as we let them.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Week, August 6, 2015

August 7, 2015 - Posted by | GOP Presidential Candidates, GOP Primary Debates, Media | , , , , , ,

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