mykeystrokes.com

"Do or Do not. There is no try."

“This Is An Old Story”: Presidential Debates Often Stink. But It Has Nothing To Do With ‘Liberal Media Bias’

Republicans are divided about many things, but one thing they all agree on is that the news media are out to get them, and when they fail, it isn’t their own fault, it’s because of the dastardly liberal media. So it was that the biggest applause in last night’s debate came when Ted Cruz unloaded all the righteous indignation he could muster on the moderators of the debate.

“The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” he thundered. “How about talking about the substantive issues the people care about?” He added that it was the result of liberal bias, noting: “The contrast with the Democratic debate, where every fawning question from the media was, ‘Which of you is more handsome and why?’”

He wasn’t alone. “I know the Democrats have the ultimate SuperPac. It’s called the mainstream media,” said Marco Rubio. Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie added their own media critiques.

And they’re half right. There were plenty of problems with many of the questions the candidates got asked. But it has nothing to do with liberal bias.

This is an old story. Republicans began complaining about media bias back in the 1970s, and you can count on every losing presidential candidate to begin whining about it within a couple of weeks of their defeat. The idea that the media are biased against Republicans has been woven deeply into conservative ideology, to the point where they’ll trot out the assertion on every issue, whether there’s any evidence to support it or not.

Let’s take, for example, Cruz’s assertion that the Democrats got softball questions in their first debate. That wasn’t how I remembered it, so I went back and read the transcript. Here are some of those softballs. To Hillary Clinton: “Plenty of politicians evolve on issues, but even some Democrats believe you change your positions based on political expediency…Will you say anything to get elected?” And the follow-up: “Do you change your political identity based on who you’re talking to?”

To Bernie Sanders: “You call yourself a democratic socialist. How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?” To Martin O’Malley: “Why should Americans trust you with the country when they see what’s going on in the city that you ran for more than seven years?” To Jim Webb: “Senator Webb, in 2006, you called affirmative action ‘state-sponsored racism.’ In 2010, you wrote an op/ed saying it discriminates against whites. Given that nearly half the Democratic Party is non-white, aren’t you out of step with where the Democratic Party is now?”

Those were the first questions each candidate got. The question to Clinton presumed she’s a phony, the question to Sanders presumed he’s an unelectable extremist, the question to O’Malley presumed he left Baltimore in tatters, and the question to Webb presumed he doesn’t belong in his party.

Like the CNBC debate, the first Democratic one had some good questions and some silly ones. But the defining characteristic of almost every debate in recent years is that the journalists doing the questioning go out of their way to try to create drama.

Sometimes they do it by saying “Let’s you and him fight,” encouraging the candidates to criticize each other. Sometimes they do it with the old Tim Russert technique of accusing candidates of hypocrisy and seeing whether they can worm their way out of it (which is no more enlightening now than it was when Russert was employing it). Sometimes they do it by asking candidates who are behind or falling in the polls why things are going so badly, which never yields anything more interesting than the opportunity to watch the candidate squirm a little. Sometimes they do it by asking trap questions of the “Have you stopped beating your wife?” variety, which have no good answers. Sometimes they do it with inane personal queries (“What’s your favorite Bible verse?”) that test nothing more than the candidate’s ability to say something forgettably banal.

In every case, the question involves more of a pose of confrontation than actual journalistic toughness, which would involve taking the candidates’ ideas seriously, forcing them to be specific where they’d rather be vague, and holding them accountable for not just their gaffes but the consequences of what they propose to do.

So how did we get here? I put the blame for this problem on the late Bernard Shaw. Televised presidential debates started in 1960, and while there were a couple of dramatic moments in debates prior to 1988, they arose in organic and unpredictable ways. But Shaw taught his successors that the questioner could manufacture a dramatic moment with the right question. Be clever enough about it, and your incisive query would be repeated on every news show and in every newspaper for days.

In 1988, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis had been a lifelong opponent of the death penalty, a topic of substantial discussion on the campaign trail. As the moderator of the second debate between Dukakis and George H.W. Bush, Shaw could have explored this topic in any number of ways. With the debate’s first question, he said, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

When Dukakis answered by explaining for the umpteenth time why he opposed the death penalty, reporters declared it a huge “gaffe,” presumably on the rationale that in order to have answered the question properly, Dukakis should have said, “Well, if it was my wife, I’d completely change my position on the issue!”, or perhaps that he should have shouted, “I’d rip him limb from limb, I tell ya!” They never explained exactly what the proper answer should have been, but they declared Dukakis a heartless automaton for not showing enough emotion in answering Shaw’s idiotic question.

And Shaw himself was proud of his heroic effort. “I was just doing my job, asking that question,” he said years later. “I thought of Murrow taking on McCarthy. That was the essence of what I wanted to be: Fearless, not afraid of the scorching bite of public criticism.”

Ever since, the journalists who serve on these debate panels have tried to frame questions in ways they think will create those dramatic moments everyone will be talking about the next day. But it almost never works.

The CNBC debate featured some good questions, some terrible ones, and a bunch that were somewhere in between. The next debate will probably not be much different. One thing we know for sure is that no matter what, Republicans will complain that the media are biased against them, and their supporters will cheer.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, October 29, 2015

October 30, 2015 Posted by | Liberal Media, Mainstream Media, Presidential Debates | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Where Connections Trump Talent”: Is Washington The Worst Place On Earth?

Today we learn that New York Times Magazine reporter Mark Leibovich has penned a book called This Town: The Way It Works in Suck Up City, exposing all the awfulness of our nation’s capital. As Politico reports, “Two people familiar with the book said it opens with a long, biting take on [Tim] Russert’s 2008 funeral, where Washington’s self-obsession—and lack of self-awareness—was on full display. The book argues that all of Washington’s worst virtues were exposed, with over-the-top coverage of his death, jockeying for good seats at a funeral and Washington insiders transacting business at the event.” Sounds about right.

In the past, I’ve offered Washington some gentle ribbing, employing colorful phrases like “moral sewer” and “festering cauldron of corruption.” In truth, D.C. is a complicated place, and like any city it has its virtues and flaws. But you don’t find many other cities where the inhabitants regularly write about how despicable the place is. Obviously, there’s “Washington,” an actual city where people live and work, and “Washington,” a rhetorical construct that embodies the things people don’t like about government and politics. But is Washington worse than anyplace else? It’s a tough call, but here are some reasons I think D.C. comes in for more of this kind of criticism:

Washington is small.

Part of the reason D.C. has no representation in Congress is that when it was established, it was thought that while the work of government would be carried out in the District, no one would live here. That may not be true anymore, but it’s still extremely small for the capital of the most important country on Earth, and that increases the extent to which it is defined by politics. There are other cities, like Los Angeles or Detroit, where one industry dominates. But with a little more than 600,000 people, Washington ranks No. 25 in population among U.S. cities, behind places like El Paso, Memphis, and Fort Worth. So even if the entertainment industry dominates L.A., there are still a few million people there whose work isn’t directly connected to it. Because D.C. is so small, it’s more dominated by its dominant industry than anywhere else.

What Washington does affects everyone, and not always in a good way.

To get back to the Los Angeles comparison, even if you think, say, the offerings on the Disney Channel are part of a plot to turn our nation’s tweens into a bunch of morons (I’m convinced this is true, I just don’t know who’s behind it or what they hope to achieve), its dominant industry probably produces things you love, too. Detroit may be a mess, but they make cars there, and you’ve probably had a car you loved. Despite the fact that Washington has produced some terrific things like Medicare and the Clean Air Act, it’s also the fount of a steady stream of misbegotten policies and political nastiness. And D.C.’s most horrible people can have an impact on all of our lives. There are no doubt people just as vile in other places, but it’s easy to just laugh at some Wall Street jerkwad or a despicable Hollywood agent. That disgusting congressman, on the other hand, is making the laws we all live under.

Washington gets more scrutiny.

The fact that politics gets the deserved attention it does means that ordinary people hear a lot not only about the consequences of policy but the ugly process of making it. The production of a movie may involve just as much pettiness, squabbling, and backstabbing as the passing of a law, but it doesn’t get as much attention, because there’s a smaller and more specialized press that covers it, compared to the armies of journalists that swarm Capitol Hill and the White House. That means that most of the ugliness is on full display.

Nowhere else do more people fail upward.

The fact that connections matter more than merit in getting ahead is true to some degree everywhere, but not to an identical extent, and nowhere is it more true than in Washington. Anyone who has worked here has encountered multiple incompetent fools who nevertheless managed to keep getting jobs with more and more authority, where they do an incredibly crappy job, only to be hired for another job at an even higher level, where their lack of talent will be even more apparent. That’s because more than anywhere else, jobs, consulting contracts, and the like are distributed based on who you know. Again, this is true everywhere, but in Washington, connections seem to trump talent every time. That doesn’t mean Washington isn’t brimming with extraordinarily talented people, because it is. But based on my unscientific survey, it has more hacks enjoying undeserved career advancement than anywhere else.

Washington has more short-timers.

OK, I’m not sure this is true, and I don’t know if anyone has the data to establish it. But it does seem that a huge number of people come to Washington, spend a few years working in the politics industry, and then leave to go somewhere else. There are people who love it here, but in my experience, there are few who love it here so much that they can’t imagine living anywhere else, unless it’s because they want to keep working in politics. In contrast, you’ll find lots and lots of people in places like New York or L.A. or San Francisco or Chicago who think it’s the best place in the world and don’t ever want to leave, no matter what they do for a living. That transient population keeps D.C.’s character defined by politics, which is the part that never changes.

That’s my list; you could probably come up with some other things. So is Washington worse than anyplace else? Does it really have a higher concentration of dreadful people doing dreadful things? I can’t say for sure. But maybe.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, April 27, 2013

April 27, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

%d bloggers like this: