Why does the press continue to play the “expectations” game in coverage of debates? In spite of writing countless articles on how the campaigns try to mold viewers’ expectations, the press today again falls into the very trap it describes.

It seems clear that Sarah Palin placed a very distant second in last night’s vice presidential debate. Her responses to the questions put to her by the moderator, Gwen Ifill, and to the jabs of her opponent, were usually little more than slogans strung together in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, with the occasional “also” for punctuation.

Joseph Biden, in contrast, was sharp, and delivered some telling blows, both factual and rhetorical.
Yet much of the post-debate coverage has been laboriously “balanced,” in the sense that it seems to think “objectivity” is to say something positive and negative about each performance, and to say the debate won’t have much effect.

Palin’s abysmal performance in recent press interviews, particularly her talks with Katie Couric of CBS, had lowered expectations so far that anything short of rotating her head 360 degrees and vomiting green slime while masturbating with a crucifix would have counted as a victory. Her pallid effort last night exceeded that low threshold, allowing conservative commentators like David Brooks to praise her “vibrant” performance.

Vibrant how, exactly? In her open refusal to answer many of Ifill’s questions? In the way she deliberately offered worn-out cliches as policy prescriptions? In her aggravatingly consistent mispronunciation of the word “nuclear”? That’s not vibrancy. That’s shakiness. Is there such talismanic power in the phrase “hockey moms” as to render the rest meaningless?

That the rest of the press allows itself to be managed by this ongoing orchestration of expectations, and the chorus of wonder put forth by Republican mouthpieces, is a disturbing measure of how far the press has fallen. The same habits of deference to power that marred the coverage of Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent WMDs are now on view in Campaign ’08. Have we learned nothing?

Evan Cornog , former associate dean for academic affairs at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism and the former publisher of CJR, is dean of the School of Communication at Hofstra University.