Local Coverage of the Debate is all about Candidate Performance

Once again, local news coverage of the presidential debates focused more on “style” than “substance” with all of the local news outlets downplaying what the candidates said and instead emphasizing how they said it.


The local news coverage of the second debate was similar to coverage of the first debate in that it focused on style rather than substance. Much of the coverage was framed around the candidate responses to the financial crisis and how both McCain and Obama “performed.” The notion of performance is how the Grand Rapids Press began their coverage in a front page story that said the debate, “was remarkable for the dourness of its mood, for the frequently subdued demeanors of the candidates.”

The local TV coverage also focused heavily on the performance of candidates and the verbal “punches” that candidates used throughout the debate. Two of the three TV stations chose to air the following comments from both candidates, comments that are a reflection of candidate performance instead of policy substance:

McCain – “Nailing down Senator Obama’s various tax proposals is like nailing Jello to the wall.”

Obama – “Senator McCain, you know I think the Straight Talk Express lost a wheel on that one.”

Of the three TV stations, Channel 8 had the longest story on the debate with a 4 minute and 5 second piece. The only excerpts from the debate that they ran were comments from Senators McCain and Obama on their tax plan. However, the excerpt that they ran had very little information about what either candidate would do. Airing the excerpted comments from both candidates took up 2 minutes and the other two minutes were taken up by WOOD TV 8’s political reporter Rick Albin. Albin provided no analysis of the debate, only a summary of comments and positions. He did mention that the most frequently asked question he has received in e-mails over the past two weeks is “why don’t the candidates ever answer the questions during the debates.” Unfortunately for viewers, he never answers that question.

The WZZM 13 story was much shorter, with only a two-minute story from the ABC network. In this story, the economy was the primary issue that the ABC reporter focused on, using edited comments from both Senator Obama and McCain. The only concrete policy presented in this story was a comment from Senator McCain where he said he would require his Treasury Secretary to bail out beleaguered homeowners. The only other issue raised by the candidates in the story was when Senator Obama made comments about McCain’s position on Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, comments that had no context.

The WXMI 17 story was 3 minutes and 40 seconds long and featured several excerpted comments from both candidates, again with an emphasis on the economy. The only content that was different than what the other two stations aired was their inclusion of closing comments from the debate by both McCain and Obama. In the closing comments, both candidates spoke to how “great America is” and how both of them would be the better candidate in continuing the country’s greatness.

The Grand Rapids Press coverage included five articles, but four of the five focused on candidate style and performance, not on issues. The lead story even decided to point out the “decibel level” of the candidates during the debate, as if how soft or loud they spoke was significant. The lead story also made a point of telling readers that neither candidate spent any time bringing up the issues they both have focused on in recent TV ads, Senator Obama’s relationship to Bill Ayers and Senator McCain’s involvement in the “Keating Five” scandal.

There was a second Press article on the front page of the paper that was based on what local debate viewers thought of the second debate. The story included a separate box where debate viewers could rate the candidate performances. This box for rating the debates was headlined with the word “Ringside,” furthering the idea that the debates are a spectacle akin to a boxing match.

A third Press article appeared on page A4 with the headline, “Contrast in candidates’ body language stood out.” The article is based upon the comments of two body language experts, one based in California and one from Atlanta. A fourth debate article in the Press was headlined “Round II: It’s all for nothing,” a story that focused again on performance. At one point the article stated, “Obama wasn’t about to let McCain beat him at small game hunting. The result: At a time of crisis and uncertainty, the nation heard 90 minutes of often-petty bickering between the two men who would lead the nation.” While this comment might be an accurate reflection on the lack of substance in the debate itself, it does not address the fact that most major news media coverage of the presidential race only perpetuates the partisan “bickering” instead of providing the public with good analysis.

The Grand Rapids Press did run one Associated Press story that questioned the comments of both candidates and provided some fact checking on six comments from the candidates. You can find a more detailed fact checking account at the Annenberg Political Fact Check site, which has been verifying claims from candidates since the presidential race began.

Other good sources for critiquing the second presidential debate are a recent articles on Counterpunch and Alternet. In addition, there is an interesting piece from the Colombia Journalism Review that talks about the format for the second debate and what the candidates agreed to. The CJR writer provides readers with a sample of a 31 page memorandum of understanding from the Commission on Presidential Debates on what the candidates agreed to, which included the following:

– The in-studio questioner must not deviate from his or her question and cannot ask a follow-up question. Their microphones will be turned off after they ask their questions.

– The moderator cannot ask a follow-up.

– The camera cannot show the reaction of the questioner.

This leaked memorandum of understanding is another indication that the presidential debates are highly staged events that have little to do with providing the public with an opportunity to take an active role in the electoral process.

Author: mediamouse

Grand Rapids independent media // mediamouse.org