There’s a madness to presidential primary debates. Having 10 candidates on stage governed by a stopwatch is an invitation to sound bites and cheap shots. This is when we need journalists to do their best work. Instead, we get news that overplays winning, losing, and gaffes, while underplaying issues of policy and leadership.
Things haven’t changed much since my 1992 book Out of Order revealed how thoroughly journalists frame elections as a competitive game. It goes beyond the endless “who’s ahead” reports sparked by the polls. Pity the press image of the candidate who’s not getting traction. Whatever happened to media darling Beto O’Rourke? This mind-set also leads journalists to see blunders and scandals as game changers, resulting in heavy coverage that can make those seem like the key issues. Hillary Clinton’s e-mails and other alleged improprieties received twice the news coverage in 2016 as did all of her foreign and domestic policy positions combined.
Enter the presidential primary debates. The networks treat them as business opportunities, a time to ring the stage with their logos, showcase their on-air talent, and do whatever it takes to keep viewers tuned in. Everyone loves a fight, and debate moderators oblige, as when CNN’s Jake Tapper in a July debate asked former vice president Joe Biden: “Senator Booker called your new criminal justice reform plan . . . ‘an inadequate solution to what is a raging crisis in our country.’ Why is Senator Booker wrong ?”
“Gotcha” questions also rule. In this year’s first debate, NBC moderator Savannah Guthrie posed a trick question with a no-win response: “Raise your hand,” Guthrie said, “if your government plan would provide coverage for undocumented immigrants.” If any of the candidates had not raised a hand, other Democrats on stage would have jumped on them. So every Democrat obliged, giving Donald Trump fuel for social media. He promptly tweeted, “All Democrats just raised their hands for giving millions of illegal aliens unlimited healthcare. How about taking care of American Citizens first!?”
It’s difficult to name a primary debate where, after it ended, the candidates’ policy ideas received more news attention than their performances. The two rounds of debates so far this year have been no exception. California Senator Kamala Harris has been described as “feisty,” Biden as “uncomfortable,” former Texas representative O’Rourke as “robotic,” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders as “having only one gear — shouty and scoldy,” and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren as “the best political athlete on the field.” Scholar Kiku Adatto notes that journalists “sound like theater critics, reporting more on the stagecraft than the substance of politics.”
Studies, including those of Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, have found that post-debate coverage is as important to the public’s response to a debate as the debate itself. Beyond the tired litany of “who won,” the post-debate story tells “who got the better of whom,” as if the ability to deliver a blistering one-liner was the measure of presidential greatness. If that were true, Lincoln and Washington would need to move over to make room for Trump. Yet, gotcha moments often fill post-debate headlines, which are then amplified through social media — turning these moments into campaign issues, as Jamieson notes.
With more primary debates to come, there’s still time to do better.
Moderators need to get out of the way, an exercise in invisibility that Jim Lehrer perfected between 1988 and 2012 when he moderated 12 general election debates. Lehrer says that his job was not to make the candidates look bad but to give viewers a chance to hear what they had to say about the nation’s pressing issues. Moderators might also model themselves after the citizens who ask questions at town-hall style debates. They want to know what candidates plan to do as president and whether they understand the problems ordinary people face.
When a debate ends, can we all remind ourselves that debate skills have next to nothing to do with the job of president? What matters is a candidate’s leadership style, knowledge of the nation’s policy challenges, skill at recognizing workable solutions, capacity for working with others, and ability to inspire public confidence. Debates are imperfect indicators of these things, but political reporters, editors, and producers worth their salt know more about the candidates than what is revealed on stage. What is the media there for if not to give us a larger sense of what the debate reveals?
News organizations like to say they’re only giving the audience what it wants. Studies demonstrate there’s a basis for this claim. We say we want meatier political news but then consume flashier fare. Nevertheless, as several studies I conducted found, people follow the news not to be entertained — though a bit of that doesn’t hurt — but to keep up with their world , and if the media fails to do that, we become a less informed citizenry.
Presidential campaigns are marathon affairs that test our attention. But research shows there are moments when Americans are unusually willing to listen and learn. The national conventions are such a moment. Debates are another. The opportunity is there if reporters would seize it, and some this year have done so. I recall, for example, a remarkable debate story that explained the ideological divide between the candidates, another that connected Biden’s remarks to his political history, and yet another that related Sanders’ comments to his leadership style. Let’s see more of that kind of post-debate reporting. And let the voters prove it’s what they want to see.Thomas E. Patterson is the Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at Harvard University and author of the forthcoming book “How America Lost Its Mind.” Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday.Sign up here.