What to Remember as You Watch the Debate. . .
. . . is this: that the candidates’ intended audience is not you but the media. They know that what they are saying will not be taken at face value but will instead remain incomplete and inert until the media, and the "spin" merchants to whom the media choose to give a forum have told you what it really means. Of course, these analysts and pundits will be various enough to give you a limited choice. Depending on what channel you watch, you will get some version of both left and right readings and a certain range of opinion within each, but going outside the boundaries of acceptable interpretation is frowned upon. The candidates know this and tailor their messages, both verbal and non-verbal, to fit within the interpretative "narrative" already laid down by the media. Any attempt by them to get outside it and establish a narrative of their own will be severely punished by charges, both explicit and implicit, that they are "out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people."
But that rarely happens. The candidates wouldn’t be where they are, sitting at the top of a long and arduous sorting process by the media, if they were inclined to follow their own path rather than that which has been laid down for them. In the second chapter of my book Media Madness, I write of the media’s fondness for exposing supposedly hidden truths — to the point where the truths are presumed to be true just because they are hidden, and those which are not hidden must therefore be presumed not to be true. It’s a habit of mind that has now become second nature, and not only to the media but to everyone who is a consumer of media — which is everyone. That’s also why President Obama has lately been saying on the campaign trail things like this. "Governor Romney says he’s got a five-point plan? Governor Romney doesn’t have a five-point plan. He has a one-point plan. And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules." Wait a minute there, Mr President. The Governor says he has a five-point plan. On what grounds do you say he doesn’t — that he’s lying? Why, on no grounds but those of the pundit’s prerogative, which is to tell us that when a candidate says A he really means B. When you think about it, such a style of "debate" is really the height of impertinence, but we are so used to it that we hardly even notice it anymore.
Moreover, much of the media analysis ignores the question of meaning altogether as something irrelevant. Characteristic of the legacy media is the question not of "how do I react" to the debate but "how will voters react." The forgotten man here is the guy actually having the reaction, who may rather resent having his reaction outsourced to media experts operating under the necessity of attributing their own reactions to someone else. This is also what allows those reactions to be so often focused on the most superficial and irrelevant qualities displayed by the debaters. The sophisticated pundits prove their sophistication and intelligence not by the persuasiveness of their own views but by imagining the views of those less intelligent and perspicacious than themselves — which will naturally be of the superficial stuff. Such condescension to their audience is matched by dishonesty about themselves, since it gives them another opportunity to practice advocacy under the disguise of neutrality and "objective" analysis.
The absurdity of the TV debates is nicely captured in this tweet from Tom Freeman, who bills himself as @SnoozeInBrief: "Hey, if I pretend to be angry with that other guy, people will think I should run the country." In fact, hardly anyone will think that — at least not until they have been told by their media betters that it is what they are expected to think. And, willy nilly, the candidates must tailor their answers, like their tone of voice and body language, with the media’s readings of these things in mind. This is even more true now that the media’s "spin" game is one that can be played by anyone on Twitter and other social-networking sites. Every man his own pundit! That means that the point of the debates is and will be increasingly that the universe of Twitterers and bloggers and even ordinary voters around the office water cooler will be looking at things just as the experts do: in terms not of what they themselves think but how they think other people, less clever than themselves will think. What do you think you can you learn from this process that’s worth learning?