A new report released this week adds some statistical weight to what dismayed us about the media’s performance during the 2008 primary debates: The media failed to engage the candidates in a meaningful discussion of the issues, but instead largely focused the discourse on the inconsequential.
Given that we are now in the midst of a financial crisis that some media outlets had been chronicling the roots of as the debates unfolded, we can appreciate how much of a missed opportunity those debates were.
“Simply put, the primary debates were a disaster,” said the report, by Media Matters for America Action Network. “With a few exceptions, the media figures who moderated the debates focused on endless rehashes of campaign gaffes, pointless dissections of political tactics, and personal issues that had little or nothing to do with the challenges the next president will face. Many of the substantive questions that were asked, furthermore, were of the ‘Let’s you and him fight’ variety, attempting to initiate squabbling between candidates instead of a meaningful exploration of issues.”
One chart in the report compares the percentage of questions asked in a topic area to what the Gallup Poll says is the importance of that topic area among voters. The most gaping anomaly between media questions and public priorities was in the area of the economy. While on average 30 percent of voters considered the economy to be the most important issue, only 9 percent of the questions addressed economic issues. And only six of those questions addressed the housing crisis, only three addressed the minimum wage, and only two addressed declining wages, the report said.
The report demonstrates why we felt the need to launch the ad series calling for a “debate worthy of a great nation in crisis,” now in its third week in The New York Times. We must continue to challenge the media to represent us and represent our core concerns.
There is one hopeful sign in the report: The moderator of Thursday’s vice-presidential debate comes from the only network that got a perfect score in the report for asking substantive questions, PBS. Given the tenor of the coverage of both Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Delaware Sen. Joe Biden in the past few weeks, it is easy to imagine a debate that would be dominated by manufactured insults over the “lipstick on a pig” cliché and well-worn plagiarism charges.
(Meanwhile, the right is waging a mass-distraction campaign against moderator Gwen Ifill for her upcoming book on the new generation of African-American political leaders, “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.” Note that it’s an upcoming book—it’s scheduled for release on January 20, 2009—and so no one knows if the book is anything over than what it is being billed as by the publisher: a book of “incisive, detailed profiles” of “the emerging young African American politicians forging a bold new path to political power.” But watch out: If Palin falters in the debate, regardless of whether the result is substance or superficiality, the right has already identified its scapegoat: an African-American woman who is allegedly “in the tank” for an African-American presidential candidate.
Full disclosure: I happen to know Ifill, as a colleague in the National Association for Black Journalists and as a competitor when she was a political reporter for The Washington Post while I was on the same beat for The Washington Times. She is as smart and uncompromising a professional as they come. Right-wing pundits who continue trying to build a campaign around throwing mud at Ifill, I’m sure, will be the ones who end up badly splattered.)