Columns, Opinion

BERMAN: There’s a debate topic in there somewhere

If you have kept up with the coverage on the first presidential debate — read every article, listened to every political radio station, watched every evening news program — it still would be easy to miss the substantive topics actually being covered. Outlets tend to make presidential debates into sorts of sports matches. Preparation for the debates is scrutinized, expectations are formed, pundits discuss how each one will “attack” each other and campaigns downplay expectations. No wonder so many people find politics nauseating.

The worst part of the media’s debate coverage is the formation of expectations. During this election cycle, it heavily disfavors Hillary Clinton. Clinton is the kind of student who goes to the library every night, rewrites all of her notes and does practice questions not even assigned; Donald Trump is the kind of student who doesn’t show up for class. Therefore, the media has reiterated that Clinton will have the facts on her side, while alluding to the fact that Trump will be scrambling to gather a thought that doesn’t include “Make America Great Again.” This then leads to the following truth:

“If Trump can stand on a debate stage for two hours and not lose his temper and come across as a reasonable person, he’ll have a good night,” said Alex Conant, the spokesman for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio during the GOP primaries.

In an NPR article titled “4 Questions Donald Trump Faces Heading Into The First Debate,” none of the four questions related to policy. The questions are: Can Trump exceed low expectations? How does Trump face off against a woman? Can Trump debate the same way he did in the primaries? What happens after the debate?

Huffington Post editor Jason Linking put debate coverage this way: “It’s best to just state that up front, lest anyone continue under the impression that the radical promise of a presidential debate ― the idea that the public might be provided with an array of substantive policy arguments so they’ll have the crucial information they’ll need on Election Day ― is anything but bunk.”

Another topic relating to the presidential debates has to do with debate prep. It wasn’t hard to find articles from NBC News or The New York Times about how the candidates are preparing for the debate. But how is this even news?

This is one of the issues that candidates are not at fault for — there are relatively few of those. Rather, it is the fault of the media and the short attention span of the average viewer. For instance, people tend to grasp on the short sound bites even though they are unrepresentative of the hour-and-a-half-long debate. The media needs to focus more on whether Trump’s immigration plan will hold up to scrutiny or how Clinton’s plan to create a no-fly zone in Syria would be enforced. It would be much better than focusing on a quasi-sexist remark Trump is bound to make at some point, or some shady, flip-flopping statement Clinton makes on an issue she has “evolved” on.

Because of the horse-race nature of this coverage, it’s hard to believe that these debates will actually make a difference in the minds of voters. Dylan Matthews of The Washington Post wrote in 2012, “In short, the effects on debates on eventual votes are likely mild, and, in most cases, effectively nil. Moreover, what effects do exist are often caused by factors wholly beyond the candidates’ control, like media coverage, attractiveness, and whether voters are watching a Nats game in the other panel of their TV.”

Oh, and by the way, the topics that will be covered are “the direction of America,” “achieving prosperity” and “securing America.” I suppose that matters.

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