Instant debate analysis draws mixed reviews

October 17, 2004|By Paul Moore

MANY predicted that the three presidential debates and the vice presidential debate would be stifled by the rules negotiated by representatives for each side. Everything from the size of the podiums, camera positions, size of tables and chairs, time constraints for answers and rebuttals, and the exact division between domestic and foreign policy issues was designed to control the environment and prevent the unexpected from happening.

From the first minutes of the first debate in Miami, something unexpected did happen: Real issues were being discussed for the first time in weeks and the American public, apparently starved for substance, ate it up. Ratings were higher than expected for all four debates and citizens were passionately talking about them. As one reader said early last week: "I just can't wait for Wednesday night's debate. I've never cared about politics like this before in my life."

This is not simply a matter of resurgent civic pride in the electoral process. The polarization among voters is real, not just a media creation, and it is driving interest in the presidential race beyond expectations. As Sun reader Charles Frazier noted: "Many news commentators set up the expectation that either candidate's future hinged on a gaffe or a memorable one-liner. It speaks well in this cynical atmosphere of TV punditry and attack ads that both presidential candidates argued forcefully for their positions."

Not that this has had a lot to do with newspaper and television coverage. The media are essentially performing the same way as in previous years: talking-head evaluations on television, and analysis and reaction pieces in newspapers. The one difference is the increased number of fact-checking and "truth squad" stories, which were well-received by readers.

The question of who won or lost each debate, however, is still paramount in the minds of viewers, readers, reporters and editors. Paul West, who heads The Sun's Washington bureau and is its chief political reporter, wrote the analysis of each presidential debate. Mr. West, one the most experienced political reporters in the country, has covered every presidential campaign since 1980.

"My job, in the analysis," Mr. West said, "is to try to explain which candidate did the best job of meeting his specific objectives for that night and, to the extent possible, to explain why a candidate said a particular thing or made a particularly strong or weak presentation."

Hours before a debate, Mr. West interviews officials of both campaigns as part of his preparation. "What I'm determining are the specific objectives of each side going into the debate. That information is overlaid against the context of the campaign. At the first debate, for example, Kerry was behind and needed a boost. In the second, Bush had to recover from what even he tacitly admitted had been a poor showing."

Not surprisingly, reader reactions to Mr. West's analysis varied for each debate. The first analysis called Mr. Kerry articulate and well-prepared and noted that he gained stature because of his performance, but Mr. West did not declare Mr. Kerry the knockout winner. "What a disservice to your readers who happened to miss the debate last night," said Ilona Meagher. "For them to open their morning newspapers and read Paul West's faulty and flawed analysis. ... Your paper is clearly trying to be `balanced' here, but by all reasonable accounts, last night's debate was a clear win for Kerry."

After the second debate analysis under the headline "Kerry's counter-attacks keep Bush off his stride," Michael McJilton wrote: "Your comments are incredible. This time Bush kept Kerry on the defensive and out performed Mr. Liberal on all fronts. You are supporting a loser."

In the analysis of the third debate, Mr. West said the Democrat "was substantive and, at times, eloquent. But he was unable to establish a clear advantage over Bush, as he had in their earlier confrontations." Franklin Jones disagreed and said: "It was a slam-dunk for Kerry. Mr. West was obviously blinded by the luminescence of simply viewing the institution of the presidency." But Michael Caughlin said: "This was an outstanding article. Factual and balanced with no obvious bias."

Mr. West is aware he will always get criticism from both sides. "Are these pieces biased? I hope not. I've never expressed a position for or against a political candidate, in these stories or anything else I've written over more than a quarter-century of covering national politics."

Without a doubt there is an element of what Mr. West calls theater criticism in the debate analysis. "Is this a good thing? Maybe not," he said. "But we all know, from the first TV debate [Kennedy vs. Nixon] to the present, that style counts at least as much, if not more, than substance in these forums."

Whether a reader believes an analysis is biased or not, it is a serious challenge to make an instant assessment of the effects of a debate on deadline. Often the real impact of the event becomes more apparent later, and that impact is likely to vary widely among those with sharply different political views. What Mr. West seeks is to provide readers with a thoughtful and balanced view at that moment in time.

Paul Moore's column appears on Sundays.

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