The following piece as produced by HuffPost's OffTheBus.
Last night’s Democratic boxing match - er, “debate” - was probably the recipient of the most issue-starved coverage of the season. So many news reports -- from the Politico to the New York Times to National Public Radio -- focused on the “Clinton hits back” theme that people might think these events are staged only for the benefit of a media that delights in watching the candidates perform “strategy” on prime-time television.
In addition to the focus on “mudslinging” (I know Clinton introduced the term, but can we please find another metaphor that doesn’t involve boxing or throwing wet dirt?), the mangled headlines were amazingly unvaried, focusing on one candidate’s perceived strength rather than the performance of the rest of the field: “Clinton’s in Thick of Barbed Democratic Debate,” “Clinton Hits Back in Las Vegas Debate,” “Clinton Accuses Rivals of Mudslinging,” “Diamonds and Pearls for Hillary,” “Hillary Goes on Counter-Offensive,” read a few. CNN was more measured, going with “Democrats spar in heated debate,” and the Washington Post report, titled “Democratic Contenders Step Up Attacks in Debate,” actually mentioned the issues.
But we’re still faced with a vocabulary of “attacks,” “sparring,” “punching bags,” Wolf Blitzer as “ringmaster and referee,” the overused “feisty,” “fighting back,” “verbally pounding each other,” and even this Hellenic-sounding phrase from the Los Angeles Times: “Hillary Rodham Clinton stepped down from her front-runner’s pedestal and hit back at her Democratic rivals Thursday night…” Stunning imagery.
Aside from the pugilistic undertones, the common theme in all of these reports was that Hillary fought back while the other candidates (read: Barack Obama and John Edwards) “stubbed their toes” while trying to kick her. (Richardson was allowed some space for his request to “give peace a chance.”) Hillary is reduced to a child deflecting mud in the sandbox (an image of her own creation), while her rivals are depicted as sore losers try to “pile on” the punches in schoolyard fights.
Are the blogs any better? A quick look at the blogosphere's reaction shows a different approach, in part because of the tradition of live-blogging big events. This way, bloggers can parse the candidates' reactions to each question in real-time, rather than providing post-mortem pronouncements. The blogs are, of course, far more partisan -- or at least openly partisan -- than the mainstream news, so you get a lot of spice mixed in with the reactions. But in general, since there's no need to appeal to a bottom line, the blogs tend to provide a more in-depth analysis than the blow-by-blows reproduced ad nauseum by the MSM.
Also, many bloggers are simply annoyed with Wolf Blitzer and CNN. For example, David Swanson at After Dowing Street wrote, "Allowing CNN to not just air a debate but to ask the questions proved on Thursday night (even more dramatically than in the past) [proved] to be a soul sickening disaster."
Can we do better than this? Zephyr Teachout's admonishment to journalists to "get over the 'horse race'" is required reading; instead of a long critique (like this one) she offers journalists a list of "dos." Do compare policies and histories; do use your own images; do write about more than polls and strategy; etc.
Also, the actual format of the debates serves no one but the television networks and their advertisers. As Dan Gillmor wrote last weekend in the Boston Globe, "political debates are stuck in a world of television sound bites, after-the-fact spin, and almost blatant contempt for voters." Technology can help us restore the debates, Gillmor argued, since it can be leveraged to let ordinary citizens in on the process and to give the candidates a chance to approach their positions and each other with nuance and depth.
The MTV/MySpace Presidential Dialogue series gives the public the chance to ask and selection the questions, follow up on the candidates' responses, and rate the performance of the candidates in real time. And other projects like the Huffington Post/Yahoo mashups and 10Questions have used online video and notion of the "wisdom of the crowds" to give the public more participation in the election (disclaimer: I'm part of the 10Questions team).
Maybe as these and newer projects mature and become more robust, we'll be able to move away from a debate system that limits the candidates' interaction with each other, insults the public, and reduces press coverage to a jumble of bar-fight metaphors.
Cross-posted at techPresident.