Americans Should Call in Paxman
Stephen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)
It is one of the most hypocritical media charades of all. Last Monday, reporters from across the world flocked to Boston for the first of the big presidential debates, which took place on the Tuesday night. Next Wednesday, they will magically materialise in Winston-Salem, North Carolina for the second. For the third, the dateline will be the week after that in St Louis. And here's the hypocrisy of it all: of those hundreds of hacks purporting to write authoritative, on-the-spot reports on these crucial debates, only a handful actually saw or will see the candidates perform in person.
What happens is that the hacks watch the debates -just like the 60 million or so who saw them last Tuesday night - on television: but in big halls with rows of monitors, rather than in their homes. Together, they note each other's reactions, and thus reach a consensus over who is performing best. Then they are ushered into press rooms to hear each side's spinners say how they outperformed the other. Literally within two minutes of last Tuesday's debate ending at 10.30pm Boston time, for example, Boy George's camp was telling the hacks that Slugger Al had lied no fewer than 27 times; Gore's was more conservative, accusing Dubbya of telling just 16 porkies.
Boy George was literally sniffing by the end of the debate - it was past his 9.30 bedtime and he had a cold - while Gore was still punching away verbally, and would doubtless have been going 24 hours later had the anchorman not finally called a merciful end to the fight. Yet, very speedily, a media consensus emerged. Boy George had not collapsed in tears or become totally incoherent against Al's relentless slugging, and so had won the debate. Boy George's camp had manipulated media expectations so successfully - portraying their man as a hopeless novice (just 12 televised debates under his belt) while Gore is a positive Cicero of debating wisdom (with 43) - that if there were no knockouts or blood on the floor, Dubbya would be proclaimed the winner.
Because this is the closest presidential election since JFK beat Nixon in 1960, the reporting itself is thus becoming a factor. If you read or listened to the media throughout the spring or summer, you would have assumed Boy George was virtually anointed as president. Then Al made his predictable surge, only for Boy George to start making a comeback in mid-September. By the time the two met on Tuesday (only for the third time, incidentally), Gore was pulling away from Boy George again - with a Zogby poll putting him ahead at 46-41 nationwide.
The truth about last Tuesday's debates, whatever you read elsewhere, is that Gore was the unequivocal winner on points. No knockouts, no appalling gaffes, certainly - but Gore was mercilessly in command from the very start, showing up the ineptitude not only of Boy George, but of the so-called "moderator", Jim Lehrer. …