Coverage of Third Presidential Debate Offers No Policy Information for Voters

The local news coverage of the third and final presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama continued the same trend as coverage of the first two debates, focusing more on “style” than “substance.”


The local news coverage of the third and final presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama continued the same trend as coverage of the first two debates. The focus was on the candidates’ “performance,” while the issues were secondary. the Grand Rapids Press ran a front page story headlined “Tough talk across the table.” The story–written by the Washington Post–story mentions that the candidates addressed issues like “taxes, health care, school vouchers, abortion, energy and the increasingly bitter tone of the historic contest.”

Despite mentioning the issues at the beginning of the article, the bulk of the story focused on Senator Obama’s relationship to William Ayers and the claims that the grassroots group ACORN has engaged in voter fraud. Only at the end of the Washington Post article do readers get information on issues. Both candidates are quoted on their position on oil independence:

McCain – “We can easily, within seven, eight, 10 years, if we put our minds to it, we can eliminate our dependence on places in the world that harm our national security if we don’t achieve our independence.”

Obama – “I think that in 10 years, we can reduce our dependence so that we no longer have to import oil from the Middle East or Venezuela. I think that’s about a realistic time frame.”

Unfortunately for readers, there is no information on how the country could achieve oil independence. The last paragraph in the story also quotes a response that Senator Obama had on the issue of free trade, where he said, “I believe in free trade. But I also believe that for far too long, certainly during the course of the Bush administration with the support of Senator McCain, the attitude has been that any trade agreement is a good trade agreement.” Again, such comments provide readers with little substance on major campaign issues.

the Grand Rapids Press also ran two other stories related to the debates. The first, just below the lead story, was about what GVSU and Kentwood High School students thought about the debate. The headline of that story read “Obama wins points for ‘composure.'” On page A2 there was a brief Los Angeles Times story about “Joe the plumber,” a man who was mentioned during the debate by Senator McCain. “Joe the plumber” is a guy in Ohio who had an exchange with Senator Obama about his economic plan–a plan that does not support. The McCain campaign has now used the comments from him in a recent political ad.

In addition to the three articles the Press ran on the debate, they also ran a debate ratings piece with the headline “Ringside.” This time the three people rating the debates are local high school debate coaches. the Grand Rapids Press coverage was missing an article checking the accuracy of the comments made by both candidates. In previous coverage, this was included.

The local TV coverage of the third presidential debate was far worse than that of the Grand Rapids Press. The WZZM 13 story began by framing the debates around the verbal demeanor of the candidates by saying that Senator Obama was “calm” and Senator McCain “combative.” The ABC reporter then said that economics took center stage in the debate, which was followed by these comments from the two candidates:

Obama – “What we haven’t yet seen is a rescue package for the middle class.”

McCain – “….and what you wanna do to Joe the Plumber and millions more like him is have their taxes increased and not be able to realize the America dream.”

However, the bulk of the comments that viewers heard from the WZZM 13 story was about Senator Obama’s relationship to William Ayers, just like the Grand Rapids Press story. Channel 13 also spent 15 seconds explaining after the debate story whom “Joe the plumber” was.

WOOD TV 8 also ran a story with their newsreaders framing the debate upfront as one that was “heating up” and “more confrontational.” The excerpted comments from the debate included a comment from Senator McCain where he says, “Senator Obama, I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against him you should have done so four years ago.” This response was in the context of their comments on the economy, where both of the candidates offered no concrete proposal to the current economic crisis. The longest comments from the candidates in WOOD TV 8’s coverage dealt with negativity in the campaign

After the debate excerpts were run on WOOD TV 8, their political reporter Rick Albin was asked to comment. Albin said that “almost every question asked ended up coming back to the economy,” but he never provided any analysis for viewers on the significance of those comments. The real question according to Albin was “did either of the candidates say or do anything tonight that will convince voters that they are the right person to lead the United States out of this economic crisis.” Albin also said that the polling over the next few days should be an indicator as to how people respond to the third debate.

For people looking for any independent analysis of the debate, there is always the fact checking done by the Annenberg Political Fact Check. In addition, the American News Project decided to not cover the debate and instead go into the community where the debate took place and interview people about how the war and the economic crisis was impacting them. Lastly, for those wanting a more substantive critique of McCain and Obama’s foreign policy positions, Foreign Policy in Focus has a lengthy, but informative video online with three foreign policy analysts.

Author: mediamouse

Grand Rapids independent media //