‘Scoreboard journalism’ has replaced 
real news about the 2012 campaign

Next up: Joe Biden vs. Paul Ryan. Somehow, I find it hard to believe either candidate will be snoozing through Thursday’s debate.

Somewhere, the spinmeisters are already polishing their post-debate talking points.  This week’s news cycles will be so full of preview stories that the actual give-and-take might be anticlimactic save some Biden gaffe or Ryan jump over the carefully crafted ideological fences imposed by the guy at the top of his ticket.

There might have been a chance, albeit small given the history and characteristics of the participants, that the upcoming vice-presidential debate might have slipped under the radar screen.  After all, it is the sort of undercard match an audience has to endure before the feature bout. But that all changed last week when Mitt Romney brought his “A” game and President Obama made it clear he’d rather be somewhere beside the University of Denver’s Magness Arena, perhaps at a more romantic observation of his wedding anniversary.

As much as we might enjoy them, as much as they once had a substantive place in our political process, the presidential and vice-presidential debates have become just another event as “scoreboard journalism” takes over coverage of political campaigns. Examples abound.

Ask yourself, for instance, how much time has been spent since the first of the three debates between Romney and Obama discussing the substance of the issues discussed vs. the column inches or television time devoted to analyzing the president’s demeanor or polls showing relatively inconsequential bumps for Romney.  Compare post-debate analysis to the extent of the coverage of last Friday’s jobs report that showed unemployment at a 43-month low or of Romney’s apparent extension of his all-of-the-above energy policy to include the tax breaks enjoyed by oil and gas producers.

In this case of “scoreboarding” the news of post-debate polls and analysis of stylistic performances easily outscores the coverage of more substantive issues. There are several reasons for that.

One is that, even at the national level, newsrooms are under financial pressures that impact both the number and sometimes quality of reporters. There are also fewer dollars for the travel and time necessary to really dig into the substance of issues. And there’s an obvious movement away from more expensive reporting toward relatively low-cost “talking heads” analyzing the minutia of campaigns.

Polling is over-emphasized these days simply because those numbers provide a story on a silver platter to the news media. Someone else has done the legwork.  Someone else has done the analysis.  Someone else writes it up and hands it to reporters and analysts.

And there are so many competing pollsters that, by themselves, they fill up the “scoreboard” with some number or another than the most widely disparate among us use to bolster our hopes for our favorite candidate.

Couple that with the fact that we can now self-select the ideological bent of the “news” we receive, that we can choose from “facts” presented by Bill O’Reilly, Rachel Maddow or even John Stewart and Steven Colbert, and you have a pretty good recipe for an electorate becoming less informed about substance and more reliant on whichever scoreboard might reflect favorably on its home team.

Before we put too much stock in an individual debate performance, good or bad, by our favorite candidates, it’s also useful to impose some historical perspective. 

We might have had our first indication that these sort of debates might be more form than substance when, back when an emerging television industry and a couple of nervous contenders did the first one, when the discussion of Richard Nixon’s five o’clock shadow, which looked more sinister back in the days of black and white TV, was as much a topic as the issues discussed.

And before any premature celebration, it’s also important to remember that Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush pretty much had their heads handed to them in the initial nationally-televised confrontations of their respective campaigns but still emerged ultimately victorious. 

And that it’s possible last week’s “debate” between O’Reilly and Stewart might have as much bearing on who our next president might be as last week’s encounter in Denver.

“Our debates have been like the mating of pandas in the zoo — the expectations are high, there’s a lot of fuss and commotion, but there’s never any kind of result.” — Bruce Babbitt

Despite his criticism, Jim Spehar will be watching the next debate. Your pre- or post-debate comments are welcome at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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