NEW HAMPSHIRE — If you cover politics for a national publication, the story of the debates so far has been President Obama’s supposedly lackluster performance and Vice President Biden’s over-the-top facial expressions. But are outside-the-Beltway journalists so easily sidetracked into amateur theater criticism and body language analysis? Recent evidence from New Hampshire suggests the answer is no. Is there hope for citizens learning something from debate coverage after all?
Debates tend to bring out the worst in national political journalists, as we’ve seen in the last two weeks and will probably see again after tonight’s town hall debate at Hofstra University in New York. First, the power of visual imagery encourages far too much attention to candidate body language and dramatic “moments,” which can be spun into narratives about the effect of debates on the horse race. In particular, many reporters seem to fall victim to the misguided belief that the camera is, as New York Times media columnist David Carr put it, a “kind of X-ray into a candidate’s inner workings.” By emphasizing Biden’s facial expressions and speculating about Obama’s supposed lack of desire, the press can gloss over the substantive matters under dispute in favor of a shared narrative about who won, who lost, and why.
But are debates covered this way outside the national media bubble of the presidential campaign? Are local reporters telling us which gubernatorial or Congressional candidates guffawed or appeared disinterested, or are they telling us where the candidates disagree on policy? Reassuringly, coverage of two recent debates here in New Hampshire has focused to a far greater extent on policy differences between the candidates. While the competing accusations made during the debates are too often reported in a “he said,” “she said” style, the state’s political press corps has placed far less emphasis on body language analysis, dramatic visuals, and speculation about consequences for the horse race.
Consider, for example, the coverage of a televised October 8 debate between Ovide Lamontagne, the Republican nominee for governor, and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Maggie Hassan. A segment on Manchester’s WMUR emphasized the differences between the candidates, including the contrasts in their personal backgrounds, their differing perspectives on the administration of Governor John Lynch, and their opposing positions on a Constitutional amendment barring an income tax. Coverage in the Concord Monitor, New Hampshire Union Leader, and Nashua Telegraph was similarly issue-focused.
A televised debate last Wednesday between Rep. Charles Bass (R-NH) and Democratic challenger Ann Kuster was described by reporters here as full of claims that the other candidate was misleading voters. Nonetheless, even the descriptions of the back and forth provided information to voters, who could learn the candidates’ positions on Obama’s health care law, the anti-income tax amendment, troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the budget proposal previously advocated by GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, voter ID laws, and Social Security reform from articles in the Union Leader, Telegraph, and Monitor. Contrast these stories with coverage of the presidential debate in Politico and National Journal or the vice presidential coverage in the Wall Street Journal, which devote vastly more space to the stylistic differences between the candidates.
We can, of course, rationalize these contrasting approaches to coverage by pointing to the differences between the two contexts. Voters know more about the presidential race and thus need less information about the candidates than in down-ticket races, particularly among those who read specialized national news sources. News consumers are more likely to follow the presidential race for entertainment or to root for a preferred candidate. But these are not excuses. The Union Leader, Telegraph, and Monitor all ran wire stories on the first presidential debate, for instance, that captured the dramatic nature of the event without shortchanging the substantive points of contention. Why can’t the national press corps do the same tonight?