Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Debate Never Ends

So, this is less timely than it could have been, although it has only been a few weeks, but that's an eon for fruit flies and the news media, but anyway the thing is this only came to my attention a couple of days ago. And since the election is still a few days away, it's not too late to post another campaign-related blog post, even though we're all pretty sick of this stuff, and have been for a long time, haven't we. Well, the frenzy continues until Tuesday, when everything changes... or not.

In the meantime, here is a news item dated October 7th, published in the Newark Star-Ledger, written by Elizabeth Birge, entitled Debates: Online, anytime for all time. If you click on that link and start reading the story, and then continue on to the second page of the story, and continue to read to the very end, you'll get to my quote. Oh, I should have said spoiler alert there. Oh well. Getting the last word in is often thought to be a good thing, but not so much in newspaper stories. But better a final quote than none at all, eh?

So, you know the drill by now, I will paste in the story for your convenience, because you are my reader and I care about you! So, here goes:

Debates: Online, anytime for all time

Websites offer every minute of the good, the bad and the goofy
Tuesday, October 07, 2008
Star-Ledger Staff

A record 73 million people watched Sarah Palin and Joe Biden debate last week -- just a few million shy of the number who saw the final episode of "Seinfeld" in 1998.

The debate shares something else in common with the TV comedy: It too can be seen in reruns.

So can all the other debates held since the campaign began almost a year ago, preserved in video clips on the internet -- and tonight's second debate between John McCain and Barack Obama will soon join them.

Of course that means every awkward or painful moment -- Obama referring to the (nonexistent) Canadian president, Palin getting the name of the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan wrong -- can be found and watched again and again on the web.

Okay now, we've gotten past the Elizabeth's introductory remarks, let's bring in the experts. This first fellow is someone I don't know, but let's hear what he has to say anyway:

There is so much to worry about that the candidates can end up coming off stiff and overly cautious, said Allan Louden, an associate professor of communication at Wake Forest University.

"They have to be so cautious, they almost have to choke the entire spontaneity out of the spot until they don't become real," Louden said.

I think I said the same thing to her when she interviewed me, but in all fairness, I recall seeing a clip of McLuhan saying the same thing about the 1976 Presidential debates between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Okay, so back to the article, and the novel point about the internet:

Snippets of the two national debates held in the past two weeks abound on the internet. And they're not all slip-ups: There's the moment when Biden choked up talking about what it was like to be a single parent after his first wife and daughter were killed and his two sons injured in a car accident. There's McCain telling the story of being given the ID bracelet of a soldier killed outside Baghdad -- and Obama responding: "I've got a bracelet, too."

The same technology that archives the bloopers and the emotional moments has also protected insightful discussion on foreign and domestic policy, preventing it from ending up like road kill on the information highway. For as much as people complain about the internet, this year it has freed Americans from the grip of the presidential sound bite.

Voters who miss the debates no longer have to rely on snippets of answers published in newspapers or aired on the nightly news. Instead they can view the event -- in whole or in part -- on any number of political websites, or, a new site sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates and

On viewers can take a quiz and identify the most important issues to them in the presidential election. The site will then archive video segments of the candidates speaking to those specific issues during the debate.

Now, time for the second expert, my friend Bruce Gronbeck, a senior scholar in the field of communication and a fine media ecologist in his own right:

"By going to, you can pick your issue and see segments of the debates on streaming video. That will be a new feature, part of the whole movement toward Politics 2.0," said Bruce Gronbeck, a professor of communication studies and director of the University of Iowa Center for Media Studies and Political Culture.

"With the internet you're going to magnify the audience for the debate by presumably millions," said Gronbeck.

Good job, Bruce! Your points are right on target. Of course, there's still the question of how many people are actually going to view the debates in their entirety on the internet, as opposed to it simply or at least also magnifying the soundbites? But magnification is in and of itself an important effect of the technology. Anyway, back to the article:

In addition, the internet will allow people to do something they haven't in the past: watch the debates later, without first fighting with a VCR or DVR. Which means TV ratings alone don't measure the reach of a debate.

"How many people are going to be at a high school football game, but they're still going to see them," said Louden.

Others think these innovations won't change much about the debates, if anything.

"In this case, technology is all hat and no cowboy," said Matthew Hale, an assistant professor at the Center for Public Service at Seton Hall University. "Regular TV spends most of its time on gaffs and zingers anyway. And what is the difference between an e-mailed audience question and one from an audience member, except that the host gets to look cool for reading e-mail?"

During the second presidential debate tonight, moderator Tom Brokaw will call on audience members to ask questions and draw questions from internet viewers.

"We could have some really interesting and exciting debates using technology by, for example, allowing people online to ask follow-up questions. Or having instant online voting about candidate responses and then asking the candidates to respond to either positive or negative feedback," Hale said.

"However, what we are likely to get" Hale said, "is the debate host saying, 'Let's check in now with our online correspondent' -- some young snarky cool kid -- 'to see what our online viewers have to say.' The young snarky cool kid will have a young snarky cool e-mailed question that makes the audience chuckle and the candidates will respond with exactly the same message they use to answer regular questions."

I don't know Hale, but he does make some good points, doesn't he? Well, okay, it's time to reach the climax of the piece, the moment we've all been waiting for. Here we go again:

The basic format of the debates may remain the same, but the stakes are actually higher because any mistake will be amplified in the Internet Age. This alone places enormous pressure on the candidates.

"TV punishes people for being human," said Lance Strate, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University. "People don't realize being on camera magnifies every gesture, even a quick look to the side -- a normal action in daily life -- becomes magnified (on TV) and looks shifty-eyed and untrusting and gets blown all out of proportion."

And that's my contribution to the discourse and the debate about the debates. Thank you, thank you. The campaigns may come to a close, the election may finally be over on Tuesday and a winner declared (or on Wednesday, or a month or two later), but the debates, and the debates about debates, they shall live on!

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