Is it? News editors can project any mood they want onto the debate. If you want a “showdown” on the front page of your newspaper, find a couple of overexcited shots of Obama and Romney, mouths wide open and growling. If you want a “frank, honest discussion,” stick some serious, sincere visages on your website. You can make one candidate dejected and turn his opponent into a godlike visionary. There are limitless possibilities, all because of that high-definition, hour-and-a-half reel available to almost every person on the planet.
But it might as well only be available to the men and women who spin it.
We watch televised debates to make up our own minds about the candidates and their policies. We want to make an informed choice about who will lead our country. We look for information and through the great medium of television, we are able to slide back into our armchairs and see our dreams come true. Desires satisfied, right? No.
In terms of their political or informational use, televised debates are a tedious waste of everybody’s time. Sure, the political and media industries benefit from the attention and the glamour. Spectacle-hungry audiences, taking a night off from “Batman” and “Charlie’s Angels,” pull out the popcorn and get to watch their celebrity politicians slug it out on stage. The lights are bright, everything’s shiny, the candidates are wearing makeup and we might as well be on Broadway. It’s all great fun but should have no vote-changing value.
Too cynical, you cry? Cry all you want: What are you learning from these debates that you don’t already know or can’t more reliably find out? Both sides are able to twist the truth to support their own policies and slam the other guy. Neither candidate can call the other a liar. That’s last-resort political suicide. And anyway, in the heat of the studio moment, neither of them is really sure who’s right. We watch debates hoping to see meaningful discourse that sets opposing policies side by side. We want candidates to argue their case without commenting pundits or cautious advisors standing by. This is a naive ambition. Debates are too fast and too drenched in predictable show business to produce anything that can seriously impact the thoughtful voter.
If you can’t get information, at least you can discern the better candidate, right? It’s easy to see who’s the good guy. He’s the honest one. He’s better dressed. He’s got really shiny shoes. And, he’s not sweating or coughing or smiling too much or too little. He’s an American patriot because he’s wearing a tiny American flag on his lapel. You can easily tell the difference between the candidates. You just know. Fine, but you don’t. You can’t discern that from 90 minutes. Maybe he’s sick or tired or having a bad day. You can’t possibly base your presidential vote on that.
If the debates were just useless spectacle, that might be OK. That might just be a fun night of TV. But media spin and “analysis” throw the whole show in a hugely negative direction. There is a real danger that we might actually think that these debates mean something. In an interview with Obama, ABC News’ Diane Sawyer asked, “Is it possible you handed him the election that night [in Denver]?” This kind of media treatment builds the absurd idea that these debates are in some way helpful in distinguishing between the candidates. This notion that presidential debates somehow present a better forum for comparison than that given in the usual media arena is misguided. Surely a sane voter cannot base his decision on a hyped-up back-and-forth between two showmen: There’s too much room for generalization and misinformation. Unfortunately, though, many do. Although Gallup concludes that no vice presidential debate from 1976 to 2008 has ever appeared to have “meaningfully altered voter preferences,” the same is not true of the presidential counterpart. Gallup even noted a 5 percentage-point swing in favor of the Republicans after the Obama-Romney clash. This is bad news.
Make a real distinction between political debates as entertainment and political debates as too-far-reaching politico-media tools. Find a drinking game, enjoy what you watch and recognize those photo stills which dominate the media in the days after. But don’t let the presidential debates affect your vote. The concepts of winning and losing are entirely subjective and irrelevant. Read about the candidates and their policies in a more controlled environment, and base your vote on the closest thing to fact that you can find. That way debates can still make the election fun but not help turn it into an unfortunate joke.
Philip Mooney is a sophomore from Belfast, Northern Ireland. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/10/15/31501/