< He Said, She Said

Transcript

Friday, October 03, 2008

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
From WNYC in New York, this is NPR’s On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD:
And I'm Bob Garfield.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
MALE CORRESPONDENT:
It is, perhaps, the most anticipated debate of the entire election.
MALE CORRESPONDENT:
It is hard to imagine anything could even partially eclipse that which has the potential to be the most remarkable debate in political history.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:
all about how this is an unusual debate, an unprecedented debate for the vice- presidential candidates.
BOB GARFIELD:
This wasn't a political debate. The great showdown between vice presidential candidates Joe Biden and Sarah Palin was an episode of American Idol. Who would be Clay Aiken? Who would be William Hung? Would Joe Biden inexplicably tell a dirty joke? Would Sarah Palin ramble incoherently?

And, as a sideshow, there was moderator Gwen Ifill, who is writing a book pegged to the Barack Obama candidacy. Would she be, as the McCain camp hinted, a biased arbiter?

Yeah, well, none of the above. Here’s what happened. Biden was Biden.
JOE BIDEN:
to give you a 5,000 dollar plan, which, his website points out, will go straight to the insurance company. And then you’re going to have to replace a 12,000 — that’s the average cost of the plan you get through your employer — it costs 12,000 dollars — you’re going to have to pay, replace a 12,000 dollar plan with

BOB GARFIELD:
And Palin was Palin, as perky and wholesome as all get out.
SARAH PALIN:
Darn right it was the predator lenders.

Joe Six Pack, hockey moms across the nation —

for thirty years, and, God bless her, her reward is in heaven, right?

We have an opportunity to learn a heck of a lot of good lessons

I say it ain't so, Joe. There you go again.
BOB GARFIELD:
So Biden did not come unhinged. And in the wake of the disastrous Katie Couric interviews, those who wished to see Governor Palin act like a nincompoop were disappointed. She committed no major blunder, was conversant on some policy issues and stayed on message, mainly by ignoring Ifill’s questions and launching into her talking points.

Ifill, immobilized perhaps, by more than the cast on her leg, did not protest. And thus, The New York Times on Friday, in separate analyses, gave Palin her props. She had succeeded by not failing.

But why wait for The Times? Cable news was awash in dial groups offering summary judgments. CNN equipped its group with handheld perception meters so we could watch its real time reactions in squiggles across the screen.

Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, says such gimmicks have made cable news a prime destination for campaign coverage.
MARK JURKOWITZ:
Somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 percent of all the time of cable news is about the election. And in some ways, this is going to be remembered as an election in which sort of cable took over the campaign franchise from broadcast news in a really decisive way.

But so many of these cable commentators are, you know, avowed partisans. And even on CNN, where you tend to get anchors who, like Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer, who give no hint of bias, when they roll out their panels, you are dealing with folks who are predetermined to like one candidate or the other.
BOB GARFIELD:
Well, for example, here was the analysis on Fox from former Senator Fred Thompson.
FRED THOMPSON:
I've seen quite a few of these things. I've never seen a performance like that. I just thought she did an absolutely masterful job.
BOB GARFIELD:
So what are we to make of that?
MARK JURKOWITZ:
There at least you get truth in advertising. I mean, at this point in the campaign season, I would assume that many American viewers are sophisticated enough to know that if you’re literally getting a Republican surrogate, whether it’s Fred Thompson or Rudy Giuliani, or a Democratic surrogate, then you know you’re getting an avowedly partisan reaction. And, frankly, you know, that wrapper already says we've got 52 calories on it, or don't take this with other medications. Caveat emptor on that one. You've been warned.
BOB GARFIELD:
What’s the point of the exercise? You know, why tune into a news channel
MARK JURKOWITZ:
Because

BOB GARFIELD:
to see somebody say something that they are predetermined to say?
MARK JURKOWITZ:
Well, and that’s a very good point. What in many cases now, what’s really happened on cable news is, you know, people are doing some level of cafeteria style news-seeking, meaning that, you know, you’re going to go and listen to the commentator or the cable network that you think is going to fundamentally agree with you.

There’s something else we should say, though, about post debate spin that’s important, which is that a key element now of deciding who’s won these things, or commenting on it, are these snap opinion polls that come out now.

And you can actually see, in many cases, it looks like the commentators are sort of tepidly and gingerly waiting for vox pop to tell them who won the debate as opposed to necessarily relying on their own instincts.
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, tell me about some of these snap polls.
MARK JURKOWITZ:
The public, I think, when it comes to the issue of sort of who do they think won, sometimes takes different cues than the pundits and the analysts. And I think a good example of that, frankly, was the first debate between Barack Obama and John McCain.

The general consensus, if you’re going to sum it up roughly, was that it was pretty much a draw. But there were a lot of pundits out there who felt that McCain had sort of won the debate. If you score it like a boxing match, he had been more aggressive.

And then the snap polls came out, and almost all of them showed the same thing, which was, you know, Obama seeming to do better in this debate by a fairly comfortable margin. And what the media considered to be sort of over deference and politeness on Obama’s part might have been considered non partisanship by voters who are not partisans on either side.

So it’s interesting. I think these sort of instant polls tend, it seems to me, to harden the conventional wisdom about a winner and a loser in a debate much more quickly than we're used to.
BOB GARFIELD:
And, therein, the question of media responsibility. It was certainly fascinating to watch CNN and see the squiggly lines, but 20 people in a room is not data. It does not project. So if it’s not statistically significant, what’s CNN doing putting it underneath the debate in real time? Is that good journalism?
MARK JURKOWITZ:
[LAUGHS] It’s another bell and a whistle is what it is, obviously. It’s interesting I mean, the folks who figure out what we might want to see on our screens during a debate may know more about human behavior than we do.

I couldn't keep my eyes off those two bars, even though they may not really be telling us anything significant whatsoever. Part of this, no doubt, really belongs more in the category of cable marketing than it does, obviously, in solid, informative journalism. No doubt about that.
BOB GARFIELD:
Mark Jurkowitz is the associate director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Mark, thank you very much, as always.
MARK JURKOWITZ:
You’re welcome, Bob.