Some things to watch for — and beware of — in the coverage of tonight’s debate among the four candidates for governor on WBZ-TV at 7 p.m.
What’s the lead? John Silber, the retired Boston University president and candidate for governor in 1990, once said a reporter’s story should be “like a clear pane of glass, flawlessly clear and unspotted.” That’s a noble sentiment and a worthy ideal, but it showed how little Silber knew what journalists do. Journalists summarize. How else could a journalist tell the story of four people arguing and boasting for an hour in a few paragraphs?
What most print or broadcast reporters choose to lead with will become the conventional wisdom about the debate, and the campaign, in short order.
Declaring a “winner.” Political debates are not high school debate team matches. There is no panel of judges to award points. There are no winners. One candidate usually benefits more from the debate than the others, but which one moves forward is not usually known for days or weeks — and always in retrospect. Be suspicious of anyone who declares a candidate “won” the debate.
The “gaffe” watch. This is the most tiresome and silly trick of debate coverage. Some reporter or commentator will always say or write “there were no major gaffes,” as if the candidate who pronounces it Pea-BODY instead of PEA-body is ballot box toast.
Sure, once in a while a candidates melts down, as Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer did in a debate last week, but you’d be better advised to stand outside in the dark and wait for a blue moon. The candidates for governor are professional politicians, and they work hard to be prepared and not make mistakes.
Thoroughly partisan analysis. Journalists — particularly broadcast journalists — will give plenty of time and space to “expert” analysts after the debate to provide their commentary. These analysts will be political consultants, former politicians or partisan activists. “Balance” will consist of having analysts from the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, and maybe an independent. (Will there be any analysts from the Green Party?)
They may be called analysts, but, to them, their job is not to analyze. Their job is to praise the candidate of their party and gently disparage the candidates of other parties as much as they are allowed. Pay attention to what, specifically, they praise about their candidate’s performance and disparage about the other candidates’ performances and you may get an idea of where the political pros think one candidate or another may have gained an advantage.
Pay slightly less attention to post-debate interviews with each candidates’ campaign staff and supporters than you would to an infomercial.
The moderator. Tonight’s moderator is Jon Keller of WBZ, and when I tell you he has in the past shown himself to be an excellent debate moderator, please keep in mind that he I and have been friends for 25 years.
The moderator’s job is to ask the questions that are on the voters’ mind, not draw too much attention to himself or herself, and to, well, moderate — to make sure that each candidate gets essentially the same amount of air time and the thing doesn’t turn into some cable news I-can-shout-louder-and-interrupt-more-than-you annoyance.
The real winner, of course, will be the voters. Somebody always says this.
Public Service Announcement
In case you miss tonight’s debate, two more statewide televised debates are scheduled.
CNN Chief National Correspondent and Dorchester native John King will moderate a debate at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, September 21, sponsored by an ad hoc organization known as the Boston Media Consortium, composed of the Boston Globe, WCVB-TV, WHDH-TV, New England Cable News, WBUR-FM, WGBH-TV and WGBH-FM.
The Consortium (which sounds like the bad guys in a Dan Brown novel) will sponsor a third televised debate on Tuesday, October 26. No moderator or panelists have been announced. Set your DVRs now.
Follow Mark Leccese on Twitter at @mleccese.
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