Any media critic haunted by a feeling they are forever writing the equivalent of You hurt America. Don’t do it again… or else! can understand Ezra Klein’s celebration of what he sees as actual “consequences” visited upon the press for a job not well done. To Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s and ABC News’s offer to host a presidential town hall both the Obama and McCain campaigns responded with what Klein calls “a swift smackdown:” while all media will be able to cover future town halls, no media organization will sponsor— and no media star will moderate — them.
So maybe the media won’t get its grubby little hands on the controls of these town hall forums, but it still has a crack at future debates (should candidates agree to participate), doesn’t it? So as far as “consequences” go, isn’t this like: You’re grounded for the rest of the school year but you can still host that one slumber party because we talked about having it before you hurt America? Or did I miss the part where the candidates renounced and rejected all future debates?
This is possibly the first time in memory that the media’s actually suffered for doing a bad job. They pissed off both candidates with their shoddy debate moderation during the primary campaign, and so now they’re being shunted aside from the bigger prize: The town halls in the general. It’s sort of beautiful.
I don’t want to get in the habit of applauding politicians sidestepping the press but, well,…maybe just this once. (Has it really come to that?) Kevin Drum has some reasonable reservations.
I’m going to wait and see how these things turn out before I cheer too loudly. As bad as the press performance was — especially in last year’s MSNBC Hillary pile-on and this year’s ABC flag lapel pin lollapalooza — it’s possible that allowing the candidates to turn these townhalls into 90-minute commercials could end up pretty badly too. After all, recent debates aside, the most common reason for shutting out the press isn’t a principled aversion to trivial questions, it’s a highly practical aversion to being forced to answer difficult questions. The decline of the White House press room may be partly the press’s fault, but it’s even more the fault of presidential communications shops that have gotten astronomically more sophisticated about shutting down the media and limiting presidential exposure to highly controlled, camera-friendly events over the past few decades….[N]ot saying this experiment will be a bust, and I think unmoderated townhalls are absolutely worth a try. But this isn’t 1858 and these candidates aren’t Lincoln and Douglas. Caveat emptor.
And it’s true. Just because the candidates aim to Face the Nation without Meeting The Press (or involving anyone from either show), doesn’t mean they won’t face another question like: “Senator Clinton: diamonds or pearls?” (a question, you may recall, composed by an actual citizen but prioritized/pushed by CNN, the sponsor of that particular debate.) But, like Drum says, let’s see what happens. Who knows, maybe regular people/town hall participants will do better with follow-up questions than big media moderators, too. Maybe not.
Also “worth a try” between now and November: a forum where actual experts on Important Timely Topics compose and pose the questions.
Liz Cox Barrett is a freelance writer and graphic designer in Kalispell, Montana. She worked as a newspaper journalist in Denver and Kalispell for 20 years.