Magazine article The New Yorker

The Debate Debate

Magazine article The New Yorker

The Debate Debate

Article excerpt

"We've got to stop the debates! Enough with the debates!" That was John McCain's plea on "Meet the Press" the Sunday before his favored candidate (Mitt Romney) pulped his unfavored one (Newt Gingrich) like an overripe orange in the Florida Republican primary.

Quantitatively speaking, the most recent Republican nominee has a point. There have been a lot of debates--nineteen so far, threatening to eclipse the previous pre-nomination record, set last time around by the Democrats, who by this point in the 2008 season had gone to the mat sixteen times. Not everyone--not even everyone who's a Republican--shares McCain's distress, of course. The old flyboy frets that the debaters' "mud wrestling" is "driving up" what he calls the "unfavorabilities" of "our candidates, all of them." In reality, the unfavorables (your pollster's term for dislikability) that have been rising are those of the two front-runners, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich; those of Rick Santorum and Ron Paul have stayed the same. Anyway, these trends have as much to do with what these gentlemen and their handlers have been saying, especially about each other, as with where they are saying it.

Yes, nineteen is a lot of debates, and, if the current schedule holds, we're due to get four more before winter ends. Is that too many? So many that we should all just say no? Well, let's see. For the great majority of voters, Presidential politics takes place almost entirely on television, which provides three main political venues: what the pros call "free media"; paid advertising; and the debates.

Free media--the news reports and ancillary programming of the broadcast and cable networks--isn't quite the neutral witness that some of it still tries to be. TV journalism's most pathological mutation, Fox News, propagandizes for the Republican right as faithfully, slickly, and humorlessly as Russian state TV does for Vladimir Putin. Fox's antibodies, MSNBC and Comedy Central, are funnier, fairer, and more factual--that last a tribute to the alchemy of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, masters of truth through fakery.

On the traditional broadcast networks, political coverage has become less about what the candidates are proposing than about the broadcasters' own stars as they handicap the horse race and analyze the strategies and motives of the jockeys. In 1968, the average talking-candidate sound bite on the evening news programs was forty-two seconds. Since 1988, it has been around ten seconds--enough for "Corporations are people, my friend," "I'm also unemployed," "I'm not concerned about the very poor," and maybe even "When we have thirteen thousand Americans living on the moon, they can petition to become a state," but not much more. (Much more is the province of C-SPAN, with its unnarrated, Warholian video chronicles of campaign events, from rope lines to kaffeeklatsches and rallies. C-SPAN practices the journalism of negative capability. But its audience is as small as its work is admirable.)

As for paid political advertising, it's almost totally baneful. And this time it's bigger, badder, and (from the standpoint of production values, though not civic ones) better than ever. The thirty-second spots that quadrennially flood TV screens in primary and "battleground" states--the ads that by law end with the candidate's own voice saying, "I approve this message"--are bad enough. But they're League of Women Voters pamphlets compared to what's coming. The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision--baby brother to the Dred Scott and Bush v. Gore atrocities--touched off a tsunami of unlimited, unaccountable, deniable political money that has just washed over South Carolina and Florida and will crest in the autumn. …

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