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Debate Spin v. Substance: Lessons From Mayberry

10/27/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Imagine if Mayberry's Sheriff Andy Taylor faced a reelection challenge from, of all people, Otis the Drunk and Deputy Barney Fife. If today's media covered the debate between these fictional television characters, it would be a no win situation for Sheriff Taylor since the media would declare a victory for Otis if he managed to stand up for the entire debate and herald Deputy Fife's performance so long as his gun didn't go off by accident, while seizing upon even the slightest misstep by the venerable Sheriff.

Many are familiar with Woody Allen's maxim that "eighty percent of success is just showing up," but watching past debate coverage you would think that is the sole criteria for being our commander in chief. With the Presidential and Vice Presidential debates only hours away amidst a time of great crisis, it is imperative that the media step back from the spin chamber and remember that they are covering a debate between candidates seeking to hold the two most important offices in this country. Too much is at stake for this to be another exercise in spin.

This is a point I raised in 2004 in the column below which remains very relevant today.

Substance Over Style

If you were picking a surgeon, would you select a surgeon whose strongest praise was that he avoided any major screw-ups? Would you select a job applicant who managed to exceed your limited expectations over the candidate who truly did best in the interviews?

In the real world, none of us would make such foolish choices. So why do we allow this to be the standard in selecting the President?

Consider the 1988 Bentsen/Quayle vice-presidential debate. Two comments that night made a lasting impression. The first, obviously, is when Senator Bentsen smacked a very green Quayle with his "you're no Jack Kennedy" response. The second was when network analysts declared the night a success for then-Senator Quayle because he avoided a major screw-up.

Is that the standard by which we determine who should be vice president? Woody Allen always said "eighty percent of success is just showing up," but until that night we never thought that was sufficient to qualify someone to be our country's second-in-command.

Jump forward to 2000 where George Bush was deemed to have "won" the debates not on substance but because he exceeded the pre-debate "C student" expectations of him which his campaign actively cultivated. It appears that there is a higher bar for the presidency, as the candidate must not only show up but also demonstrate that he or she is not as dumb as you may think.

It is time for an end to this "soft bigotry of low expectations." We must judge debates on the merits and not like a beauty pageant. A Committee of Concerned Journalists study of the coverage of the 2000 campaign found that the Bush-Gore debates were the number one story of the campaign's final stages but only 11% of this coverage addressed the substantive policy issues discussed. Instead, the media focused on the sporting aspects of the debates and reported on the candidates' strategies and whether their performance met "expectations."

If the political media is going to cover the debates like a sporting match, they could learn two things from their colleagues covering boxing. First, any reporter covering a boxing match would keep score for each round. Political analysts should do the same if they want to talk about the debate in substantive terms. They can either follow the boxing methodology which is based on hits, aggressiveness and controlling the ring or standard debate scoring which is based primarily on the strength of the argument and how well it is presented.

Second, if the Rocky Balboa/Apollo Creed fight from the movie "Rocky" took place in the real world, the sports headlines would read "Creed Wins Split Decision," and not "Balboa Goes the Distance, Proves He's Not a Bum." Such an approach makes sense since, regardless of the type of competition, readers want to know who won, who was better, and what the score was.

In 2000, viewers heard analysts herald Bush's debate performances for such things as reciting global hot-spots like Sierra Leone, but what was barely mentioned was that debating coaches found Gore won each debate. For some reason the media believed that voters didn't need to know this crucial information.

With the first debate this week, it is time that the media recognizes that these debates are not a reality game show but a job interview for the most important position in the country. If this truly is "the most important election" in ages, then we deserve to have these debates judged on substance and measured by the voters' expectations for the next four years and not pre-debate spin.

This means that the real question the media should address is not whether a candidate exceeds someone's pre-debate expectations, but which candidate performs best in their job interview with the American public.

Originally published on Democratic Underground.