She’s not alone in her anger. Four people wearing Puerto Rican flags rise and storm out of the hall. Outside, in the warm evening air, two of them give an impromptu press conference—castigating CNN and Wolf Blitzer for not following up or extending the question to the other candidates, and accusing the candidates of pandering to Florida’s Cuban-American community at the expense of other Hispanic constituencies or paying lip service to larger issues. “They are condescending to our community! They are talking down to the community,” says Dennis Freytes, a Special Forces veteran and license plate activist, referring both to the candidates and to CNN. Later, when I ask him how he thinks the media have been covering Hispanic issues and the campaign, he wastes no words in delivering his answer: “Poorly!”
“Get the facts. Then you can ask good questions,” he implores the media. “You need to know and investigate, not just ask the easy question. A reporter has to soar above that!”
Later, walking to my car, I talk with another reporter about the treatment of Cuevas-Neunder’s question. We agree that it was late in the debate, and Blitzer probably just wanted to get through as much as possible before moving on, and also that the trade angle was a pretty obscure question, and not very artfully put.
But it got me thinking. Bad question or not, if you’re going to take the time to have ordinary citizens (or moderately extraordinary citizens, like prominent business representatives) ask their questions, then you should give them the courtesy of having every candidate answer them. Blitzer wasted time asking each candidate why his wife would make a good First Lady; surely there was time for their thoughts on how to promote trade between Tampa and Ponce, Puerto Rico—or whether that’s an issue to which the president should devote his attention.
To do otherwise is to use people as props, to feign interest in their issues while simultaneously thinking of how to move on to another, more interesting topic. Good politics and good journalism both demand that we pay attention to specifics, arcane as they may be—that’s part of the distinction between pandering and serving. The modern political campaign trades in benign generalities, and too much of the ensuing campaign coverage fails to challenge that model or fill in the details that the candidates so often elide. One measure of how well this campaign is covered will be how often reporters let those evasions slide—and how often the media can press the candidates to really respond to the people whose votes they’re seeking.
When you get down to it, I think this is what turns a lot of potential voters off: the overwhelming sense that politics is a game being played for its own sake, that every campaign stop is just another space on the board. It’s fun, sure. But it’s of questionable value.