Opinion

Jack Shafer

Why we can’t stop watching the stupid presidential debates

Jack Shafer
Sep 28, 2012 22:30 UTC

The 2012 Presidential (and Vice Presidential) Debates, a four-part miniseries, will debut on televisions and computer screens around the world on Oct. 3 and continue weekly through the month. The program will feature presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in three episodes, and their understudies, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, in one.

I can’t promise excitement or even enlightenment: As viewers of The 2008 Presidential (and Vice Presidential) Debates and its antecedents will recall, the events resemble 90-minute quiz shows in which there are no correct answers, just strong opinions. We come to the debates expecting dramatic oratory and political persuasion, but don’t even get a spritz of hot air. That’s because the debates are primarily designed to unite, not divide.

Highly formatted to begin with, this year’s debates will be even more highly formatted, as Elizabeth Flock reported last week in U.S. News & World Report. The Commission on Presidential Debates – the cutout the two major parties have been using to run the debates since 1988 – has for the first time issued cheat sheets to the candidates listing what topics will be up for debate in their first meeting: the economy, healthcare, the role of government and governing. This will make the study and rehearsal sessions, in which the candidates spend hours practicing their debate sound bites, a lot easier.

As usual, the commission’s debate rules are limiting enough to be called stringent. Open Debates, a non-profit advocacy that wants the debates released from the clutches of the Democrats and Republicans, complains of how “dreary” the events have become, comparing them at their worst to a joint press conference. In the first debate, each topic segment will run 15 minutes (there will be three “economy” segments). Moderator Jim Lehrer will begin each topic set with a question that the candidates get two minutes to answer, and at evening’s end both contestants will get two minutes for a closing statement.

Veteran debate moderator Gwen Ifill notes in the Washington Post that the debates don’t have much of an effect on the presidential election. “Gallup polls going back decades show precious little shift in established voter trends before and after debates,” she writes. Nor does anyone say much of enduring consequence, as Time magazine inadvertently showed with a recent video slideshow of “Top 10 Memorable Debate Moments.” None of the moments cited – Ford’s gaffe, Quayle’s Kennedy pandering, Gore’s body language, etc. – really changed anything.

Banning quote approval sounds good, but can it work?

Jack Shafer
Sep 21, 2012 22:53 UTC

New York Times reporter Jeremy W. Peters rolled a stink bomb into the church of journalism in July with his Page One story revelation about the widespread practice of “quote approval.” It turns out that reporters from many top news outlets covering the White House and the Obama and Romney campaigns – including the Times, Bloomberg, the Washington Post, Reuters, Vanity Fair, and others – regularly allow Obama and Romney staffers and strategists to dictate terms for interviews that permit them to rewrite or even spike things they’ve said.

Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather called the quote approval “a jaw-dropping turn in journalism” and a “Faustian bargain,” warning that it could make reporters “an operative arm of the administration or campaign they are covering.” Edward Wasserman, incoming dean of the University of California at Berkeley journalism school told NPR’s On the Media that it reduced an interview to “a press release.” Others compared the practice to “quote doctoring,” and editors at National Journal, Associated Press, McClatchy Newspapers and the Washington Examiner promptly banned it from their pages.

Yesterday, after an influential column by David Carr, one of its own, and a prodding blog item by Margaret Sullivan, its new public editor, the Times issued its own prohibition against after-the-fact “quote approval.”

Erik Wemple spotted the very visible loophole in the Times policy shortly after it was promulgated and drove his Washington Post blog through it. All reporters need do, explained Wemple, is call White House sources to talk about an issue; wait for the sources to agree to a “background” interview; agree to attribute the quotations to a “White House official;” then ask the source for additional quotations on the record. As Wemple notes, this arrangement would not violate the new Times policy, which appears to ban quote approval only as a precondition for an interview.

Willard Milhous Romney

Jack Shafer
Sep 19, 2012 21:06 UTC

Be careful about writing Mitt Romney’s political obituary before they fill him with formaldehyde and pour him into his mahogany condo. Like that other frequent Republican presidential candidate, Richard Nixon, Romney has a remarkable talent for stepping into it, sinking and soiling himself rotten as he extricates himself. Romney’s latest stumble — complaining to rich donors about the “47 percent,” which was Webcast by Mother Jones yesterday — would bury a less tenacious candidate. But Romney’s talent for powering past his embarrassments ranks up there with that of Nixon, a champion of compartmentalization who believed that as long as he had a pulse he had a chance of winning the White House.

Like Nixon, Romney is not only at war with the Democrats but also with the base of his own party, which has never been convinced that he’s a true conservative. Both Nixon and Romney have dressed their pragmatist campaigns in conservative clothing, but with the exception of their cultural biases against sex, drugs and pornography — and their instinctual disrespect for disrespecters of authority — none of it has ever rung true. The stink of inauthenticity wafts so heavily from both that their early biographers have incorporated it into the titles of their books, as historian David Greenberg pointed out to me in an interview. The Real Romney, published this year, and 1960′s The Real Nixon, both posit that what you see is not what you get with these two men.

“Romney is the most patently phony presidential candidate since Nixon,” says Greenberg, author of Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image. “The most talented politicians express a natural ease, by backslapping or chit-chatting with people. Nixon and Romney don’t have that skill, but they try anyway.” The failures of Nixon and Romney to connect, to seem “real” or to appear likable have resulted in both doubling their efforts to be personable and human, making even the sympathetic cringe.

USA Today’s new suit doesn’t fit

Jack Shafer
Sep 14, 2012 23:29 UTC

USA Today in 1982

I have a theory – one that I’m certain I’ve stolen – that it was Al Neuharth and not Tim Berners-Lee who invented the World Wide Web – with the creation of USA Today. Page One of the paper’s first issue, Sept. 15, 1982, contains so many of the visual motifs that would become common on homepages a decade later when the Web really got rolling that you’ve got to suppress the urge to click and scroll when looking at it today. And swipe! USA Today founder Neuharth may have simultaneously anticipated the tablet, too.

Gannett’s ballyhooed redesigned USA Today, which hit newsstands today, 30 years after that first issue, still looks to my eyes like a proto-Web page. Breaking news (keyed to pages inside) still runs down the left rail like an RSS feed; a simple grid still serves a populist mix of news and entertainment that not even the Huffington Post has improved on; and the infographic “USA Snapshot,” which spawned a billion imitators in both print and online, still anchors the bottom left corner. The only casualty from the original Page One design appears to be the colorful weather “ear,” although it’s been dead for many years.

Early Web designers probably didn’t look directly at USA Today‘s front page for homepage inspiration. It’s more likely that squeezed by the technological limitations of the early Web era – a limited selection of fonts, narrow bandwidth, slow graphics cards and small displays – Web designers responded by reducing homepages to grids that were easily downloadable and easily digestible. Form followed function in both the case of USA Today and the early Web, with no room for gratuitous design.

Reinventing video news for your smartphone

Jack Shafer
Sep 12, 2012 16:39 UTC

Sooner or later, every expensive thing finds itself supplanted by some technology-driven thing that’s cheaper: Ivory billiard balls were replaced by plastic, silk by nylon, mainframes by desktops, your local recording studio by GarageBand, and so on. Ivory, silk, mainframes, prestigious recording studios, and other luxury-class goods survive, but cost-cutting technological advances have steered them into niches.

That’s precisely where Web video news producers intend to steer broadcast and cable news – into niches. And they’ve got a shot at it. In 1980, CNN began exploiting the falling costs of broadcast gear and satellite time. By decade’s end the upstart network had not only equaled the traditional broadcasters but exceeded them, becoming the vital source for breaking news. Fox News Channel and MSNBC provided the next lesson by adapting talk-radio culture to cable news. Now, falling bandwidth prices, incredibly cheap video gear and ubiquitous smartphones  – 45 percent of American adults own one – lend similar economic advantages to those looking to displace cable.

One new news-and-information prospector is Huffington Post co-founder Ken Lerer, who this week bestowed a name on the cable-news slayer he has been assembling in his skunk works since last spring: NowThisNews, shooting for a late-October launch. As AllThingsD reporter Peter Kafka reports, NowThisNews will chart a different path than its fellow video pioneers at HuffPost Live, namely 12-hour blocks of talk-show chat. Lerer promises “short video pieces that will hopefully be very viral and very social, one at a time.” His general manager, Eason Jordan, a CNN veteran, told Kafka: “There’s an abundance of talk. We intend to report the news.” As distribution partner, Lerer and company have enlisted click-whores (and I use that term with complete admiration) at BuzzFeed, which will also assist in the creation of NowThisNews’s clips.

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