The miracle of post-debate commentary

How reporters pull off those instant analyses

Election 2004

September 30, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

If you read a news analysis in the The New York Times the morning after the first presidential debates four years ago, you learned that Al Gore was "the man who loves to show off how much he knows" while George W. Bush was "more eager to exchange good wishes."

But patrons of The Washington Post discovered instead that Bush "took some punches and gave some back in return," while Gore "treated his opponent with relentless courtesy and occasional humor."

Did Gore's and Bush's remarks reveal "pretty ideological" divisions, as Fox News Channel analyst Bill Kristol asserted just a few minutes at the close of the debate? Or were the two candidates, as CNN's Bill Schneider had observed a few moments earlier, "very vigorous in pointing out how much they agreed with each other?"

What the heck actually happened? Can we put any stock in the instant analyses thrown at us after tonight's nationally televised presidential debate?

On important, late-night news events -- such as the State of the Union address and presidential debates -- conventional wisdom is minted by the political press corps in a matter of seconds and minutes, not days or weeks. It is, by its nature, instinctive and rushed. It is very often conflicting. Sometimes, it's just flat-out wrong.

"That's a real problem," says U.S. News & World Report columnist David Gergen, an adviser to presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. His advice: "Let it marinate a little bit."

Gergen, nevertheless, will appear on CNN with Larry King immediately after each of this year's debates. "My thoughts begin to form as soon as I start seeing the two people enter onstage -- before they open their mouths," Gergen says. Ten or 15 minutes into the debate, an impression sets, he says, and he looks for evidence to confirm or contradict it.

For reporters working for big daily newspapers, the job can be even more complicated. They are like beat reporters who begin articles about professional baseball before games are done, by constructing the bottom of the story with background statistics and developments from the early innings.

When writing on presidential addresses, the Washington press corps desperately seeks early drafts of the speech. For debates, however, when candidates' remarks are rehearsed but not literally scripted, reporters must write with far less assurance. There are usually at least two major components to any coverage: the main story, which recounts the substance of the candidates' remarks and gives a touch of the flavor of the event. And then there's the analysis, in which the reporter has to capture a key theme or element that's likely to stick with voters.

"You often have to start writing the main story half an hour into it," says Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. (The Times, like The Sun, is owned by Tribune Co.) "This is a story where you may find the second edition [version] is completely different from the first."

In addition, McManus says, with only a trace of hyperbole, "If you look closely at the elegant news analysis that goes next to the news story, you'll discover that all but the first two paragraphs were written the morning before. Reporters dip into the history books and try to come up with something irrefutable. Anything short of one of the candidates expiring on camera -- you're OK."

For the first Kerry/Bush debate tonight, which is to focus on foreign policy and homeland security issues, McManus said he will have six beat reporters with expertise in specific regions watching with an eye for claims that can be dissected in print tomorrow. Another six reporters will watch from home, on call, he says, should other issues arise.

Often, commentators are watching far more feverishly to see if the candidates slip up and produce a gaffe. Such missteps are seized upon and, in a 24-hour news cycle, replayed on television seemingly without end. So the campaigns often seem to be playing defense by training their standard-bearer to avoid any mistakes rather than produce any new policy pronouncements or rhetorical flourishes.

Most of the media initially missed the importance of President Ford's blunder in a 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter when he wrongly asserted that Poland was not under control of the Soviet Union, recalled Mort Kondracke, a longtime political reporter who is now executive editor of the Capitol Hill publication Roll Call. Voters recoiled when Ford, for days, stuck by his statement -- intended to signal he did not accept the country's domination by the Soviets.

"We are not God. We make mistakes," says Kondracke, a Fox News commentator. "Fortunately, there's a next day." But he says he trusts an "educated gut" developed during 10 presidential election cycles. "I've watched a lot of debates, and think I know -- though I could be wrong -- what constitutes a major moment."

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