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Presidential debates and the media effect

COMMENTARY | September 28, 2004

What the candidates say and how they appear are important, but perhaps not nearly as important as what the news media do afterward

By Barry Sussman



Reporters and commentators, especially on TV, can pretty much determine the outcome of the election by the approach they take covering the presidential debates that start Thursday night.


Will they be opinionated or factual? Will they dwell on candidate tics, prepared one-liners, or real differences in positions? Will they, as pontificators, declare a winner, or will they, as observers, tell us what happened?


Don't hold your breath.


It may be I'm exaggerating in saying that media coverage of the debates can determine the outcome. But if it's an exaggeration, it's not much of one, for editors and reporters have great, almost incredible, power in debate aftermaths. It's a power probably unparalleled any other time in the four-year election cycle.


Here's a little story about this power, as exhibited in 1984 after the Reagan-Mondale debates. I write about it because at the time I was doing the opinion polling for the Washington Post, and I observed it close up.


The first debate was Oct. 7. Reagan, then 73, was a fine orator in speeches but had a history of nodding off at meetings and never rounding off sentences at press conferences. So it was no surprise when he stumbled on a few lines or even when he said, at one point in the debate, "I'm all confused now."


His performance didn't disturb viewers, at least not at first. Opinion polls taken immediately after the debate showed no clear winner. ABC News, for example, had 39 percent saying Mondale had won the debate, 38 percent saying Reagan had. USA Today had it 39 Mondale, 34 Reagan. Others also had the result fairly close, with the suggestion being that Mondale had made a good showing — but not much more than that.


At that point the media, especially TV, began to display their power to change public opinion. The debate was held on a Sunday evening; on TV all day Monday the early polls were cited as showing that Mondale had won the debate. Reporters and anchor people repeatedly emphasized weak spots in Reagan's performance, replaying some of his stumbling.


On Monday and Tuesday evenings, the Washington Post/ABC news poll (my poll) went into the field, and the effect of the news coverage was blizzard-like. Among those interviewed Monday night, 55 percent said Mondale had won the debate, 19 percent said Reagan had. What was a good showing for Mondale had become a rout.


Tuesday morning the Wall Street Journal had this headline: "New Question in Race: Is Oldest U.S. President Now Showing His Age?" That opened the floodgates further, with the TV networks seizing on the idea that Reagan had become dotty. One evening news program showed Reagan dozing off in the presence of Pope John Paul II. Others showed equally damaging behavior.


Through the vagaries of sampling, Tuesday's Post/ABC News sample included substantially more Republicans than Monday's. Nevertheless, the Tuesday sample had Mondale ahead by 55 to 16 percent. The New York Times/CBS poll, conducted Tuesday, gave Mondale a 66-17 percent victory.


This is called the media effect. Really something, isn't it?


The question arises, if the news media transformed opinion to such an extent, why did Mondale eventually lose so badly? And one answer is, that what the press giveth, the press taketh away. In a later debate, Oct. 21, 1984, Reagan tossed out a scripted attempt at comedy: "I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."


The press seized on this rather weak, predictable attempt at humor as an absolute marvel. Jack Germond and Jules Witcover wrote in their book, "Wake Us When It's Over," that "to millions of viewers around the country, the one-liner likely told them that, like America itself, the Gipper was back — back in form; the easygoing, take-it-in-stride confident leader they liked."


It was the press more than the citizenry that was won over by the remark, however. The overnight polls were pretty much the same as the first debate's overnight polls: Mondale slightly ahead in two, Reagan slightly ahead in one.


But the press corps seized on the joke. In newspapers the following morning, and TV accounts in subsequent days, reporters and commentators told Americans the Gipper was back. There was neither rhyme nor reason; Reagan did as poorly in the second debate as in the first, perhaps worse. He wandered so badly in his closing statement that the moderator, Edwin Newman, cut him off. In most circumstances that's a terrible embarrassment.


Nevertheless, the media, almost as one, had fixed on a message — the Gipper was back — and that was, to all intents and purposes, the end of the Mondale run at the presidency.


Strong politicians overcome such adversity. Most often they have themselves to blame if they cannot. That was true for Mondale, I believe, but it didn't  make the offending media outlets and individuals any less culpable.


Reporters and commentators in 1984 would have served the country better had they spent more energy reporting what was said and reviewing it for basic truthfulness and significance. They didn't. Is there any reason to think they will this time around?


Look for Substance, Not Sizzle
Adam Clymer writes in a New York Times op-ed: "The test for journalists is whether they can appreciate the importance of the event and help voters make sense of what is said, checking the accuracy of claims about the past and the present and the plausibility of what is claimed for the future."

Swagger vs. Substance
Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times op-ed column: "Will the press play Karl Rove's game by, as Mr. Clymer puts it, confusing political coverage with drama criticism, or will it do its job and check the candidates' facts?"

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