Reporter's Notebook: Worth Debating?

Asking who won the debates at a viewing party organized by grass-roots Democrats in the bluest of blue states was not going to get me a very diverse set of answers. So my conversations with the predominantly African-American crowd watching the whole 90-minute extravaganza turned to the value of the event itself.

Are the debates worth it? How do they weave into the fabric of this grand conversation between candidate and voter? What I found was media criticism, a layer of hope, some skepticism and fear.

We were in the VIP room of a trendy hotspot in the chic Bowery area of Manhattan. It's a neighborhood with homeless shelters adjacent to high-priced lofts. I didn't have the audience applause meter, but it was a tossup whether the cheers were louder at Kerry's consistent steps to seem, well, consistent — or at Bush's pregnant pauses which, well, didn't deliver.

At the end, by the time Teresa Heinz Kerry and first lady Laura Bush were in their awkward embrace (perhaps commenting on the similarity of their outfits), the viewing portion of the program ended and the party portion began.

Un-spun

As the sounds of the speeches were quickly replaced with thumping bass lines, Philip Mckinley, a physician, wondered with me what the talking heads on the telly, with their wraparound microphones, were saying. For him, it was the pundits' distilling process in this next half-hour of lip flap that was so crucial in shaping public opinion.

In his mind, it was a slam dunk for his candidate, but he wanted to know whether he watched the same game as those who got paid to pontificate on a Thursday night. He had reason to be concerned.

The insta-polls that media outlets release immediately after the debate play a crucial role in framing the conversation over the next few days. Friday headlines run the numbers from Thursday night's polls.

Headlines beget headlines. Momentum can strengthen in one direction or another, a moveable voter could, God forbid, move, and campaign strategies must adjust accordingly. This doesn't have much to do with a candidate's actual position on issue X or Y, but more the spin.

Speaking of spin, Beatrice Sibblies, one of the organizers of the party, half joked that she might wake up and find headlines declaring a Bush win of this debate. That all depends on what paper she reads, and which campaign surrogates the front-page reporter interviewed.

In Miami, behind most of the network reporters' live appearances, cameras revealed a room set up to deliver the quickest and most predictable pithy reaction with the least amount of effort. It was a frenzied scene of cameras and boom mics, swimming to and fro like sharks and piranhas jostling for political chum.

Insight

For both candidates this first debate was an opportunity to take the material they had been road-testing for months now and deliver it to one of the largest audiences they will ever have in this process.

Alana Thompson, an accountant, reminded me that, short of having serious cash to get into a Kerry fund-raising dinner or working the campaign phone banks for a ticket to a Bush-Cheney event, this was one of the few opportunities millions of people will ever have to see and hear the men side by side, head to head. She values the debates because, in her opinion, the media doesn't inform the viewers enough to help identify the differences.

There is some value to the mediation. Whether it's appreciated by this viewing party or others, who knows? Though none of the network television stations were bold enough to throw "fact checks" on screen while the debates were happening, bloggers were furiously submitting their versions of Internet sticky notes with factoids and sources highlighting errors by both candidates as the two gentleman uttered them.

For example, during the post-debate show, ABC News' Jake Tapper told Peter Jennings about overestimations by John Kerry on the amount of money spent on the war in Iraq (it's not $200 billion as the senator said; according to the Congressional Budget Office, it's only $120 billion) and President Bush's statement that 100,000 Iraqi security forces have been trained (according to the Department of Defense, there are only 50,000 trained and their readiness is in question).

The substance might be something Bryan Lattimore remembers, but being in the advertising world, he was as interested in strategy. In his opinion, niche audiences are the only ones likely to have their decision swayed by a candidate's posture on particular issues. For him the aggregate will sway based on which campaign is able to execute the best strategy through the debates. Similar to any sale, the campaigns have to get a gut reaction out of the voter.

Debate

There have been several conversations and articles in the past weeks about the book No Debate by George Farah, which details how staged these events have become. Farah makes a lucid case on how the process of the debates has changed from spontaneous and raw exchanges of opinions and ideas to micromanaged events in the interests of the two parties and to the exclusion of everyone else. Farah also shows how systematically the debates have become so nonconfrontational, to the point where the events might as well be called a joint news conference.

It almost seems ironic that in this world, where reality television shows rule the roost, that television networks would let such a controlled affair take place. It seems like ratings would be higher, the less predictable the event.

Window-dressing is how Alfonso Holloman sees this tradition. He'd prefer a much more open and flowing format, where the individual who has the quicker mind and clearer agenda is at an advantage. He knows that the masses will not be swayed by one debate, or two or three, that they won't likely go home remembering which candidate stood for bilateral versus multilateral talks with North Korea. He concedes that the decisions, for the most part, have already been made by most voters, and this last month is merely an opportunity to calcify a viewpoint.

As the martinis flowed past me, I realized that we aren't ever likely to value public speaking and debating as, say, the British do. We aren't going to bring "question hour" to the Senate floor once a week — unless Mark Burnett, the creator of Survivor, has something to do with it.

If the next two weeks are simply about appreciating more window dressing, then we'd better get used to the idea that this might just be, as a cardiologist from New York's Upper East Side put it, a democracy on a marionette.

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