13 Winning by Staying Ahead: 1996 Debate Performance Verdicts
James B. Lemert
University of Oregon
At least since Gerald Ford's media-declared "Eastern Europe gaffe" in 1976, news media verdicts about who did and did not do well in presidential debates have been one of the central preoccupations of the campaigns and of academic research about the debates. And no wonder, as there is considerable evidence that these verdicts may have as much impact as the debates themselves (for survey evidence of these effects, see Lemert, Elliott, Bernstein, Rosenberg, & Nestvold, 1991; Lemert, Elliott, Rosenberg, & Bernstein , 1996; Steeper, 1978). Elsewhere in this volume, the reader will find further evidence concerning the impact of these news verdicts.
This chapter considers the network verdicts themselves--what they were in 1996, who delivered them, and how they relate to a major change over the years in presidential debate news coverage. This change can be traced using the same coding systems as were applied to postdebate news specials and to evening newscasts back through the resumption of the debates in 1976 ( Lemert et al., 1996). What was that change? Over the years, network journalists increasingly often have deemphasized their use of campaign insiders and other politicians as candidate performance judges.
Although avoiding these "spin doctors" seemed to be a growing consensus among television journalists during the 1988 debates (see especially Lemert et al., 1991), just where journalists would go for alternate sources of candidate performance verdicts does not necessarily follow. Would spin doctors be replaced by (a) journalists themselves, (b) academic experts