Instant CW Pudding: Add Water, Stir One Minute, Then Eat

As we mentioned yesterday, we were a bit taken aback at how quickly conventional wisdom congealed around the storyline that John Kerry had thrashed President Bush in the first presidential debate. Pre-debate, after all, pundits and bundits (bundit: n.: a blogger pundit) had warned that the real contest involved not the debate itself, but how it played out in following days. Josh Marshall, for example, had written that “if the Democrats don’t hit the ground running with a plan in mind they’ll be overwhelmed by the GOP spin machine — no matter how many fibs the president tells or how many times he says up is down.” In other words, the debate itself isn’t of utmost importance; the real challenge is “winning the spin.”

One would expect it to take some time to win the spin. But the notion that Kerry had been victorious sprung up within an hour of the debate’s finish, and then hardened into “truth” overnight. And tentative efforts to paint the opposite picture were swatted down instantaneously. Last time around, Al Gore was initially judged to have won the first debate, only to discover, once the spin cycle had run its course, that his frustrated sighs meant a loss. How things have changed — so much so that Newsweek can run a cover package, printed barely 48 hours after the debate, explaining “Why Kerry Won.”

No doubt the rise of blogs and instant polling has had an impact on how quickly the CW forms. The DNC flooded reporters with press releases during and after the debate pointing out that even conservative bloggers, like those at National Review’s The Corner, were critical of Bush’s performance. Democratic partisans such as Wesley Clark worked conservative bloggers’ criticism of the president into their post-debate spin. And while the CNN insta-poll of undecideds showed a near-tie between the candidates, other polls, both online and on the networks, showed a Kerry victory within minutes of the debate’s final words. The evidence simply piled up too quickly for the spinners to push a contradictory message.

In some sense this is a good thing — if Kerry genuinely did win the debate in the eyes of the voting public, spinners shouldn’t be able to alter the public’s perception in the days after. But there are pitfalls in any effort to discern conventional wisdom so quickly. When the pundits at The Corner found out they had been monitored for political purposes, Jonah Goldberg wrote, “I am sure some folks will say … that this means we shouldn’t speak our minds around here. But that’s a non-starter.” It’s an admirable sentiment on Goldberg’s part. And it underlines the foolishness of treating blogs as unfettered outlets of pure opinion. While Goldberg may assert that Cornerites are taking the high road, many bloggers, aware of the impact they have on their readers, are quite susceptible to the impulse to blur the line between opinion and propaganda. It’s important, then, to greet blog buzz about winners and losers with skepticism, since what’s being said online may well be part of the spin.

And those instant polls aren’t exactly oozing credibility, either. The networks’ panels of undecided voters are often so small as to be virtually meaningless — and news outlets don’t always do a particularly good job of vetting who should be considered undecided. And since partisan bloggers tell readers to target online polls and offer them the links to get there, it’s absurd to pretend that the quickie poll results reflect public opinion. Nonetheless, our inboxes fill up with press releases like the one we received this morning from the Democratic National Committee, informing us that “the reviews are in” for the vice presidential debate, and Edwards was the victor. How do we know? Because 98 percent of respondents in an Akron Beacon-Journal poll, and 99 percent of respondents in a poll, said so.

We’re not longing for the days when spinners could alter the outcome of a debate through daily repetition and a relentless focus on style over substance. But before we embrace this brave new world of conventional wisdom that hardens into concrete in minutes, we might want to remember that there are still plenty of kinks to be worked out in determining what people might actually be thinking.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.