10/12/2012 12:50 pm ET Updated Dec 12, 2012

Reaction Shots Have No Place in Debates


After the presidential and vice-presidential debates, there was more talk about how the candidates reacted to each other instead of what they actually said.

Instead of critiquing the content and veracity of their policy positions, pundits and casual observers fixated on the reaction shots of the candidates. In last night's debate, Joe Biden exhibited a mastery of the issues and aggressively challenged the more dubious claims put forth by Paul Ryan. And yet, many pundits focused their attention on the way Biden smiled and laughed in response to comments by Ryan that he rightfully took issue with. And they went even further to emphasize how his grins showed off his, in their words, excessively white teeth.

And in the presidential debate, despite a consensus that President Obama should have been more forceful, the overwhelming majority felt that he won the debate on substance. You would think the whole point of a presidential debate is to see which candidate reveals the most substance. Yet, the dominant media and political narrative was that Romney won the debate handily.

What does that say about us when the winner of a debate is chosen, not by what they say, but by how they look and sound as they say it, or by how they react to what their opponent is saying?

What did the fact that President Obama looked down at the podium as Romney spoke have to do with the President's command of foreign policy and the economy? And wouldn't it have been more productive if the pundits and the public instead paid more attention to Romney's litany of misinformation and lack of specific details? If they did that, Obama would have been viewed as the winner, despite whatever stylistic shortcomings he might have displayed.

We don't need to see if the candidate not speaking is smiling, sighing, grimacing, or laughing. We need to focus on what the candidate actually speaking is saying. To serve that end, cameras should only focus on the candidate speaking, unless there is a back and forth interaction between them.

Reaction shots don't tell us anything about how a candidate will govern. And we don't need to see them or talk about them in post debate analysis.