One of the things that I thought was good about the last time Fox News played moderator to a debate was that the event was blessedly free of contrivances and packed with decent questions that seemed to have a foundation in journalism. It contrasted quite favorably with, say, the first CNN debate, in which "spicy or mild?" was an actual question that an actual adult asked Mitt Romney -- a guy who wants to be responsible for the economy and the launch codes and whatnot.
Tonight, however, Fox is partnering with Google, and there's a good chance that Fox is going to unwind all of this goodwill by drowning the proceedings in all sorts of superfluous gloss and technical gimmickry. The questions have been provided via YouTube, and as Erika Fry reports at the Columbia Journalism Review's Campaign Desk, it will feature an attempt "to analyze and report the results of online polling efforts in real time." Per Fry: "That means at-home viewers will be privy to the reactions of many people, rather than just the relative few that make up the debate's live audience."
Remember when debate organizers assumed that the viewer could watch the proceedings and form their own opinions on things? That was sure stupid! Now you can withhold forming your own opinion until the "cloud" assures you that it will be a popular one.
Fry talks to Steven Fein, the co-author of a 2007 study entitled "Social Influence on Political Judgments: The Case of Presidential Debates," and finds he has similar concerns:
Fein is particularly disdainful of CNN's past use of "audience reaction meters" (the network used them in the 2008 general election when audiences were instructed to remain silent) in which the real-time reactions of a small, handpicked group were recorded on dials and broadcast over the course of the debate. "Their opinions are going to shape and at some level influence potentially millions of people out there," he says.
He speculates that monitoring social media sites during a debate can have a similar effect on people, though it is likely to be somewhat muted, as people most often follow like-minded individuals.
He worries these technologies and the instant feedback found on Twitter and microblogs leave the public and perhaps more critically, the media, "no time for being thoughtful. There's no opportunity for subtlety and nuance. It's just quick reactions and very reactive kind of response."
In this regard, Google and Fox, in introducing their brave new world of "realtime feedback" have stacked the deck for tomorrow. Will Google's instant polling drive the pundits or will the substance of the debate? Will audiences lose sight of what's actually being said between the Twitter feeds and reaction charting? What sort of sample is really going to be participating in Google's real-time polling? Whatever the answers, it's hard to imagine deeper understanding about candidates and their policies will result from this new distraction.
Fein is also pretty sure that the debate moderators should try to do a better job getting the audience to shut up: "I would certainly love to see them take the stance of just telling audience to keep it quiet. It shouldn't be a sporting event, where you're yelling and booing and cheering your side on. Because it is a distraction and can be more that, it can really influence things." Given the fact that the audience in the past two debates made as much news as the candidates themselves, I'd say he has a point.
READ THE WHOLE THING:
Sound Off: How audience reaction distorts political debates [CJR]