A thought on media analysis of political debates - Island of Sanity

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A thought on media analysis of political debates

Whenever political candidates debate, the news media feel compelled to present their analysis. A panel of "experts" will discuss the performance of the participants.

Now, think about how we decide who won a debate. Basically, we look at this on three levels.

  1. How calm and confident and authoritative and such that each debater looked.
  2. How eloquent each debater was. That is, how well he worded his statements, how quick and clever his responses were, how well he thought on his feet.
  3. How sensible and well-reasoned each debater's positions were.
True? After a debate, people will say, Wow, Mr Smith looked really nervous, did you see how he was sweating? (#1). Or, Wasn't that great, did you hear that funny comeback Miss Kelly had, comparing her opponent to Wiley Coyote? (#2) Or, Mr Wang's energy policy should really work as long as the Europeans agree to cooperate. (#3)

Now of these three types of analysis, which is most important? I'm sure that put that way, the obvious answer is #3. Being able to make witty comments is an important skill for a late-night talk show host, but is not particularly important for a president or congressman. Surely what really matters is that he have sensible policies that will lead the country to worthwhile objectives.

But when the media analyze a debate, what do they always concentrate on? Mostly #1, and some #2.

Perhaps they do this because they want to sound unbiased. If they start analyzing the candidate's policy proposals, it will be almost impossible to avoid making value judgements: Are new government regulations vital to protect the environment, or are they yet more intrusive and unnecessary interference in the lives of the people? Is prayer in schools a recognition of the religious beliefs and heritage of this country that should be applauded, or a sign of intolerance that must be stamped out? And so on. But by talking about "neutral" things like who had the best snappy comeback and whose tie was on crooked, they can claim to be objective and non-partison.

Or perhaps they're simply lazy. It's a lot easier to make fun of somebody's haircut than to seriously analyze the value of a proposed new weapon system, or the long-term viability of a social security reform plan.

But in either case, the media analysts trivialize the debate, and distract the people from discussing the issues. Instead of talking about whether these proposed policies really are good or bad or practical or impractical, they work to get everyone talking about who was better looking and funnier. They will even seriously discuss which candidate "looked more presidential". Excuse me, but I'd much rather have a president who was homely and spoke with a lisp -- and had good, sensible policies -- than a president who is handsome and well-spoken and leads our country to ruin.

Next time you watch a political debate, let me offer this suggestion: Forget about who has the most expensive suit or who stumbles over his words or even who is more articulate. Instead, try to keep your mind on questions like:

  • What would this policy he is proposing really mean for the country? What would it mean for me personally?
  • Are his goals worthy? Is he leading the country to moral excellence, like justice and virtue and compassion ... or is he pandering to our basest motives, like greed and bigotry and jealousy?
  • Even if the goals are worthy, is this policy likely to achieve them? Does success depend on wildly optimistic assumptions about the economy or human behavior or technological progress? Or is this a rational plan that can reasonably expected to work, barring some unforeseen setbacks?
  • Are the likely results worth the cost, whether that "cost" is in dollars, freedom, or something else? Are there alternative ways to get the same or similar results without bearing these costs? Or is the goal, however nice it sounds, just not worth the price?
I'm sure you can think of other similar questions, depending on exactly what is being discussed.

But let's judge debates on the basis of policies and ideas. This is a political debate, not Star Search.

© 2000 by Jay Johansen


Recep Jul 24, 2014

What else are they gonna say? That never before in the hiosrty of debate prep have they had to coach their candidate on not being too smart or showing too much command of subjects, lest he highlight how woefully unready his opponent is?A truly bizarre predicament for Biden. Luckily, I think Biden is well-liked enough that he's fairly gaffe-proof. But we'll see.

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