By The Numbers

AP shows how to write a debate story

“Thompson Stays On Script,” reads the headline on Wednesday’s Liz Sidoti-bylined Associated Press article about Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate.

Sidoti, too, stayed on script — the script being her formulaic piece, typical of hour-after/day-after presidential debate reporting. The formula goes something like this:

1) Describe how expectations (set by the press, with help from the campaign/s) were met or not. Sidoti’s lead: “Fred Thompson remembered his lines in his first stage performance” (and later: he “neither stood out nor fouled up”). Read: expectations more or less met.

2) Highlight the most intense “squabbling” and “sparr[ing]” (Sidoti’s words) between candidates, quoting candidates’ claims and counter-claims without helping readers navigate toward the truth. Per Sidoti: “In the most heated exchange, [Romney and Giuliani] squared off over tax cuts and spending restraint. Each claimed greater commitment than the other… ‘I cut taxes 23 times. I believe in tax cuts,’ Giuliani said…Giuliani said spending fell in New York while he was mayor, and rose in Massachusetts while Romney was governor… ‘It’s baloney,’ retorted Romney. ‘I did not increase taxes in Massachusetts. I lowered taxes.’… That spat left Thompson and the other contenders as bystanders for several minutes.” That spat - as reported by Sidoti - left readers as bystanders, too.

3) Cue expert who offers readers nothing (and about whom you tell readers nothing - or at least not everything they should know). Sidoti called upon “a political science professor at Fordham University” named Costas Panagopoulos for this insight: “I don’t think [Thompson’s] performance was especially bad, but it wasn’t especially great either.” Panagopoulos, whose incisive analysis has been tapped by assorted campaign reporters to date, also worked in Senator Hillary Clinton’s office from 2004-2005 - a relevant fact that several reporters, including Sidoti here, have failed to note.

Bloomberg included Panagopoulos in an October 2nd piece - identified only as “a political science professor at Fordham University” - and reported that “Obama’s drop in fundraising may reflect [per Panagopoulos] ‘waning enthusiasm for his candidacy and diminishing prospects for an Obama victory.’” Spoken like someone who once worked for Clinton. On that same day, The New York Times also quoted Panagopolous, calling him simply “a fund-raising analyst…of Fordham University,” contending: “Clinton’s blow-away third-quarter fund-raising total is likely to have, among other things, a profound psychological effect on voters. It will give the impression of growing Clinton strength, both in terms of dollars and number of donors.” (RJ Eskow, blogging on the Huffington Post on October 2nd, called the Times on its incomplete identification of Panagopoulous, which Times’ reporter Patrick Healey later updated. But Healey may want to send around a memo to his fellow Times campaign reporters. Adam Nagourney quoted Panagopoulos - identifying him only as a Fordham political science professor — back in April in a piece about Democrats’ fundraising advantage.)

But, back to the formula:

4) Report on any candidate faux pas (sighs? smirks?) observed during the debate—or lack thereof. In this case, Sidoti reports that “no gaffes surfaced” for Thompson. And then she accidentally fact-checks Thompson - a good thing! - in the process of highlighting what we can presume she considers a near-gaffe: Thompson “did, however, low-ball the Democratic-controlled Congress’ job approval rating at 11 percent. A recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll showed it at 22 percent.”

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.