OHIO — The hype was heavy.
Media outlets, locally and nationally, couldn’t resist billing Thursday’s speeches in the Buckeye State by President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, his GOP opponent, as a “duel.” The Washington Post,
NPR, USA Today, and the Dayton Daily News were among the many outlets that offered some variation of the pistols-at-dawn treatment.
In reality, of course, the candidates delivered their remarks on the economy from opposite ends of the state, with Obama at Cuyahoga Community College in the Democratic stronghold of Cleveland, and Romney giving his speech at family-owned Seilkop Industries, in the GOP-friendly suburbs northeast of Cincinnati.
Nonetheless, the stage was set. And as The New York Times’s Caucus blog noted—before a schedule adjustment created just a bit of a gap between the two speeches—the face-off was set to create “a kind of political split-screen moment” that foreshadowed the debates to come in the fall.
No doubt, those future debates will be televised. So, it seemed worthwhile to review how some of Ohio’s major television stations covered this early heavyweight confrontation, and to get a sense of how ordinary news viewers experienced the day’s big political event.
For the most part, the coverage was straightforward and workmanlike—much like the speeches, which despite the advance hype mostly consisted of familiar material, with neither Obama nor Romney covering new ground. The broadcasts generally gave the candidates enough time to make their case, and selected fairly substantive sound bites. (There was no new gaffe-hunting, and some broadcasters, like WEWS, the ABC affiliate in Cleveland, noted Obama’s wry acknowledgment of the recent “doing fine” flap.) And the supplementary interviews focused on the candidates’ man-on-the-street supporters, as opposed to political insiders—a move that helps reduce, if not eliminate, campaign-crafted spin.
While there are limitations to how much a report on a stump speech can accomplish, there was at least one opportunity here for more context that was generally missed. Romney and Obama each noted, accurately, that they are offering different economic visions for the country. But what the coverage here generally didn’t note as clearly as it could is that neither man can implement that vision himself. As Slate’s Matthew Yglesias wrote in a blog post about Obama’s speech, there is a major stumbling block—obstruction in Congress:
[Obama is] quite persuasive on the point that an Obama re-election would block Romney from doing various perhaps-objectionable things. But the idea that a second term for Obama will change the fact that 41 Republican Senators can and will filibuster any Obama ideas that they don’t like (i.e., basically all of them) doesn’t add up. Fundamentally, the very depth of the divide between the parties that Obama highlighted at one point in the speech makes it extremely unlikely that the other stuff he was talking about will happen. Sharp polarization, party discipline, and a political process with many veto points just don’t go very well together.
Unless there’s a Republican rout in November, a President Romney would probably face a similar dynamic. In his speech, Obama actually addressed the Congressional logjam, urging voters to break “a stalemate in Washington.” That line was featured in the report from WCPO-TV 9, Cincinnati’s ABC affiliate, which gave the news team there an opportunity to explore the issue—but the statement was allowed to stand on its own. No other report I saw really tackled the problem.
Elsewhere around Ohio, the NBC and ABC affiliates in Columbus, which sits in the middle of the state between Cincinnati and Cleveland, appeared to have punted on sending crews to cover the speeches. But Ohio News Network, a sister station to CBS’ WBNS-TV in Columbus, ran fairly detailed segments on each speech, plus a discussion with political reporter Jim Heath, who made the obvious—and apt—point that Obama must turn around the public’s perception of the economy if he is to win. (Heath likely confused listeners near the end, when he compared, with little explanation, Obama’s situation to George W. Bush in 2004, and then again to Obama’s campaign versus the unmentioned John McCain in 2008.)
And broadcasters in Cleveland did a decent job in framing the candidates’ speeches, particularly for the president. WEWS ran fairly lengthy segments of Obama’s speech, while reporter Chris Flanagan and anchor Lee Jordan helped situate it in the context of weeks of bad economic news and polls indicating slipping support for the president.