Fein is particularly disdainful of CNN’s past use of “audience reaction meters” (the network used them in the 2008 general election when audiences were instructed to remain silent) in which the real-time reactions of a small, handpicked group were recorded on dials and broadcast over the course of the debate. “Their opinions are going to shape and at some level influence potentially millions of people out there,” he says.

He speculates that monitoring social media sites during a debate can have a similar effect on people, though it is likely to be somewhat muted, as people most often follow like-minded individuals.

He worries these technologies and the instant feedback found on Twitter and microblogs leave the public and perhaps more critically, the media, “no time for being thoughtful. There’s no opportunity for subtlety and nuance. It’s just quick reactions and very reactive kind of response.”

In this regard, Google and Fox, in introducing their brave new world of “realtime feedback” have stacked the deck for tomorrow. Will Google’s instant polling drive the pundits or will the substance of the debate? Will audiences lose sight of what’s actually being said between the Twitter feeds and reaction charting? What sort of sample is really going to be participating in Google’s real-time polling? Whatever the answers, it’s hard to imagine deeper understanding about candidates and their policies will result from this new distraction.

While acknowledging that media is a business and must engage in a contest to attract an audience, Fein thinks they can do better.

“What really concerns me is how much the media plays this as a sporting thing. It really sounds like a horse race or a baseball season. There’s this titillating quality to a lot of the coverage—all the bells and whistles and charts and 3-D things. It just cheapens the whole process and makes the emphasis on very superficial things. It becomes what reader and viewer comes to expect. With a little more substance it can make a bit of a difference, I think the audience is capable of more than more of what the media thinks they are.”


Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.