Blogs Alive

The temporary virtues of live blogging

Last night’s presidential debate provided yet another opportunity for political Web sites to unleash their best (or most willing) bloggers on the Live Event. For a couple of hours, those watching the debate could follow along with, say, Andrew Sullivan’s musings at The Atlantic, the merry group of color-coded commentators at The Economist’s blog, or the self-designated fact-checkers of Think Progress. (Or the crew here at CJR.)

Not surprisingly, we saw some of the format’s limitations: its insta-reax qualities, and its ephemerality. As a matter of fact, most of the live blogs don’t hold up very well to next-day-scrutiny, written as they are with the idea that readers are also watching the debate on TV or online. Scanning a time-stamped post is rather like reaching for a Cheeto during the playoffs: it’s an accessory to the main event.

Case in point, a snippet from the astute Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo:

9:25 PM … Think we’re having some coherence problems in this answer.

9:27 PM … (If I weren’t worried about having clever things to say, I’d say that both are doing decently. But McCain sounds kind of old and a little incoherent. And Obama’s answers are more clear and organized. Also doing better at connecting answers to families. Also Brokaw’s a bit of a whiner, no?)

The posts are irrelevant almost as soon as the moment has passed, but this is the understood nature of the beast. (Marshall, for his part, did mention throughout the night that he would follow up on certain brief points, a nod to the negatives of the fast-response format.) Even Think Progress’s link-heavy take (Read this, while you watch. It’ll go well with that McCain response.) didn’t seem as pertinent as one would think, once the debate had ended.

This brings up a question that is often asked about live blogs: how good can they be? The problem with the question is that the standards for judging them intrinsically have to be different. The analysis will never be as good as it is post-debate or the next morning; even the fact checks arguably do better in other formats—scattered through a live blog, they’re read in passing and don’t necessarily stick. Live blogs are kind of like online versions of themed parties; their success is largely based on how well they commit to their themes. Last night, the most rewarding live blogs were those that established their theme—candidate X needs to do Y; let’s see if he does that—and returned to it throughout the night.

Readers of The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan (equally supportive of Obama and Sullivan) must certainly have felt this. Sullivan followed up on his pre-debate statement, that “the winner will be the man who addresses the concrete issues in a way that most people can understand,” with this final take:

I love debate and was trained as a boy in the British system to be a debater… All I can say is that, simply on terms of substance, clarity, empathy, style and authority, this has not just been an Obama victory. It has been a wipe-out. It has been about as big a wipe-out as I can remember in a presidential debate. It reminds me of the 1992 Clinton-Perot-Bush debate. I don’t really see how the McCain campaign survives this.

It’s not a very specific analysis. But Sullivan provided a cycle for his readers—a start, a finish, and a priority to look out for. If these live blogs can’t always succeed in analyzing the issues and policies as the candidates speak, they can enunciate a clear set of priorities for the evening, attracting readers who feel chemistry (partisan or otherwise) with those priorities. Framing the debate before it begins brings clarity and purpose to the live blog.

Likewise, John Hood, one of the many contributors last night at NRO’s The Corner, framed McCain’s task for the night: “…every minute he failed to clearly and convincingly separate himself from President Bush, he was losing.” And Ta-Nehisi Coates, who was blogging sporadically away from his home, expressed a framing point which underscored his own mindset: “I think things are solidifying, it’s hard to see anyone being swayed by anything happening tonight.”

The value of the live blog is still to be determined. Until then, the most important thing to remember is that the format is ultimately about characterization. Instead of lining up an overachiever’s agenda—employ zingers, read everyone else’s live blogs, fact-check, and try to predict the next day’s headlines—maybe we should keep it simple: set a bar for the candidates and see if they reach it.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.