The Media Today

Last night was the logical end point of debates in America

September 30, 2020

“Horrific.” “A total mess.” “An embarrassment.” “A national humiliation.” “An epic moment of national shame.” “Off the rails.” “A pure trainwreck.” “A hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a trainwreck.” “A stressful, chaotic trash fire.” “A shitshow.” “The great American shitshow.” “A low point in American political discourse.” “A disgusting night for democracy.” “It was not a presidential debate. It was mud-wrestling.” “It wasn’t even a debate. It was a disgrace.” “I can’t go to you, Chuck, with my normal, Give me some political analysis question, because I think we need to just pause for a moment and say, That was crazy. What was that?” “I basically am paid to watch it, and it was a struggle for me to get through ninety minutes of it. That was some tough television. Whew.” “As somebody who has watched presidential debates for forty years, as somebody who has moderated presidential debates, as someone who has prepared candidates for presidential debates, as someone who’s covered presidential debates, that was the worst presidential debate I have ever seen in my life.” “Perhaps we could also debate by mail.”

As legions of pundits concluded in its aftermath, the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, in Cleveland, was, indeed, dreadful—though it feels unfair to drag Biden, the city of Cleveland, and the word “debate” into that analysis. More or less every fear that I had going in was realized: the moderator, Chris Wallace, was desperately inadequate; Trump’s lies about election integrity weren’t sufficiently challenged; the segment on “race and violence in our cities” missed the point and played into Trump’s hands. (“Surprise!” BuzzFeed’s Ryan Brooks wrote. “The ‘race and violence in our cities’ section of the debate was really racist!”) One moment was particularly dark: Trump failed to condemn white supremacy, then name-checked the Proud Boys, a violent far-right group, and told its members to “stand back and stand by.” (Proud Boys everywhere were thrilled.) That aside, it’s not worth dwelling on what was said, since much of it defied coherent characterization and analysis. “How do you even write about what just happened?” Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, asked on Twitter. “You have to Hunter S. Thompson it, riffing on the absurdity and the chaos and the gloom.” (Maria Bustillos, who also writes for CJR, suggested writing privately for posterity, like a latter-day Suetonius.)

Related: Debate night in what’s left of America

Much punditry cast the debate not only as awful, but as an aberration from a fine democratic tradition—an echo of the way many pundits see Trump generally. That’s mistaken. Just as Trump is, in many ways, a symptom of wider systemic flaws (see the tax system for the most recent example), last night felt like the logical end point of America’s recent history of debates, and the way we talk about them. If you insist on grading a serious process as shallow entertainment, it should be no surprise when a shallow entertainer turns up and exploits it. Yesterday, a finding from a Monmouth University poll—that 74 percent of Americans were planning on watching the first debate, even though just 3 percent thought it “very likely” to sway their vote—circulated widely, as evidence of entrenched polarization. That’s fair, but a different assessment of that figure—that “the audience for these debates are voters who already have a rooting interest in one side or the other”—was perhaps more pertinent. This is the reason you watch a sporting event. And that is what many Americans have come to expect of debates.

In the aftermath, some media critics stressed that the format needs to change ahead of the next debate, including by empowering the moderator to cut off candidates’ mics when necessary; numerous columnists argued that there shouldn’t be a second debate at all. As I’ve written before, reforming the format is a good idea—but tweaks, frankly, are unlikely to salvage the debates at this point. Nor should we expect future debates to be canceled. TV networks like the ratings, even when their talking heads tut-tut at the poverty of the discourse on display. A cynic might even see the outraged reaction as part of the entertainment: ripe to be clipped, then splashed across networks’ homepages and YouTube pages and Twitter, with praise emojis and eyeball emojis and I Can’t Believe Dana Bash Said “Shitshow”! captions.

In many ways, the things reporters and pundits said before yesterday’s debate are as illuminating as the things they said afterwards, and perhaps more so. As I wrote yesterday, the buildup was marked by a parade of values-free, fight-night-style triviality, including many takes that implicitly lauded the effectiveness of Trump’s debate “style.” (Some of these felt like hindsight-heavy revisionism, but that’s beside the point.) Such analysis continued right up until debate time. Some of the last remarks I heard before the networks handed to Wallace said, of Trump: “He is a performer, and of course, we’ll have to see how he performs tonight”; “He wants to shake things up, that’s always been his way”; “He’s been here before, four years ago, and he turned it around, in part, with a debate, and going relentlessly and ruthlessly on the attack.” Trump’s subsequent behavior was not some huge surprise—not enough of one to justify the whiplash change of tone, at any rate. Instead, we were performing a debate ritual: provoke fights, then clutch pearls about the fights, then analyze how good the fights were. Lather, rinse, repeat.

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Unlike some of those who would cancel the debates, or write them off as inevitably worthless, I believe that they can matter, and should be illuminating. That they so often aren’t is not just a product of weak moderation, or format flaws, or Trump—it reflects a media-wide failure of seriousness and imagination. Such failures don’t just manifest in the language pundits use to frame debate nights themselves; they manifest in wider attitudes that treat genuine policy debates—in the broadest sense of that word—as boring, unrealistic, infantile. In so many ways, 2020 is a natural jumping-off point for broad, society-wide debates that allow radical ideas—on reforming the economy, on fighting climate change, on racial injustice, and so on—a fair hearing. It’s the media’s job to moderate such debates, by featuring them prominently in our day-to-day coverage and chatter. Until we do that more consistently, debates—in the narrower sense of that word—will, like so much else in America, continue to be a shitshow.

Below, more on the debate:

  • The moderator: Many viewers had harsh words for Wallace’s performance. CNN’s Oliver Darcy said that Wallace “failed to meet the moment”; the Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove called him “the debate moderator who couldn’t”; MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski tweeted: “CHRIS WALLACE DO BETTER.” Wallace “entered the night lauded as perhaps the most fearsome interviewer on national television,” The Atlantic’s David A. Graham wrote, “and left as roadkill.” Others argued that Wallace had an impossible job.
  • False equivalence: While many observers said clearly that Trump behaved much worse than Biden last night, some post-debate coverage muddied the waters, hiding behind impersonal language that implied that Trump and Biden were equally responsible for the mess. Matt Gertz, of the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America, picked out some representative headlines: “Sharp Personal Attacks and Name Calling in Chaotic First Debate” (the New York Times); “Personal attacks, sharp exchanges mark turbulent first presidential debate” (the Washington Post). “None of those descriptions comes close to capturing what happened,” Gertz writes.
  • Proud Boys: Joan Donovan, of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, offered some advice for reporters covering Trump’s Proud Boys remarks, and members’ reactions. “Please please please do not try to interview the Proud Boys. They seek media attention and then use it to spread their toxic message,” Donovan wrote on Twitter. “When reporting on tonight’s debate, call them white supremacists. But do not give them a mic.”
  • A speck of light on a dark night: Ahead of time, it looked as though Wallace wasn’t planning to ask a question about the climate crisis, but he did—the first time a presidential debate moderator has done so in eight years. The ensuing conversation, like the rest of the debate, was a mess, but the question was a start.

Other notable stories:

  • Recently, Dawn Wooten, a nurse at a privately-run ICE facility in Georgia, alleged, in a whistleblower complaint, that female detainees had been subjected to a high rate of hysterectomies, possibly without their informed consent. ICE and a local hospital subsequently released records showing that two full hysterectomies were performed in the past three years—but a new investigation by the Times found a pattern of “other invasive gynecological procedures” that detainees “did not fully understand and, in some cases, may not have been medically necessary.” Writing for The Baffler, Felipe De La Hoz argues that focusing too much on the hysterectomies claim obscures more routine brutality—the “banal and persistent force that has been crushing detained immigrants, and people in government custody more generally, uninterrupted for decades.”
  • The Atlantic is out with a new series, “The Firsts,” for which Adam Harris, a staff writer, profiled five Black Americans—from DC, Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina, and New York—who were among the first children to desegregate their public schools. The task that faced these children “was a brutal one,” Rebecca J. Rosen, an editor, writes. “They changed America, but in large part, that change was not lasting. As they grew older, many of them watched as their schools resegregated, and their work was undone.”
  • In media-business news, Verizon is trying to sell HuffPost; according to the New York Post’s Alexandra Steigrad, a sale would likely trigger “massive layoffs,” though it’s not clear any buyer is interested. Elsewhere, OneZero, a science and tech site on Medium, launched two new publicationsDebugger, focused on gadgets and apps, and Future Human, focused on “the science that will shape our survival as a species.” And NowThis launched a new channel, NowThis Earth, focused on climate and environmental issues.
  • Josh Sternberg, who writes a newsletter called The Media Nut, cautions against the “breathless” recent coverage of independent newsletters as a sustainable proposition. “While ‘success’ is happening for some, it’s not happening for most,” he writes. While some newsletter writers are “rock stars” with dedicated fans, most “are in a garage band… hoping to build that audience and catch a few lucky breaks along the way.”
  • Shep Smith—who abruptly quit Fox News last October, amid reported tensions with the network’s opinion hosts—will launch his new show on CNBC tonight, at 7pm Eastern. In an interview with the AP, Smith denied that any “on-air people” at Fox had “pushed me out the door,” and pledged that his new show would “come out and do just the news.” (In July, when Smith’s CNBC show was announced, I assessed his just-the-facts approach.)
  • Robert Mueller has broken his silence again—criticizing a new book in which Andrew Weissmann, his former deputy, makes the case that his office’s investigation into Trump was insufficiently aggressive. “It is disappointing to hear criticism of our team based on incomplete information,” Mueller said, adding that he stands by his decisions. The Post’s Matt Zapotosky has more. (ICYMI last week, I critiqued Mueller revisionism for CJR.)
  • For the latest chapter of Year of Fear—a CJR series focused on election-related coverage in four places which lack a strong local-news presence—Charles Richardson reports from Macon-Bibb County, Georgia, where the impact of COVID-19 has been an “unrelenting shock.” Georgia as a whole “is once again in the red zone, according to the White House Coronavirus Task Force,” Richardson writes. “And yet the state turns its attention to November.”
  • Anna Fifield, who recently left her job as the Post’s Beijing bureau chief, writes that reporting in China increasingly feels like reporting in North Korea, which is often graded as the worst country in the world for press freedom. “Across China, it has become extremely difficult to have conversations with ordinary folk,” Fifield writes. “People are afraid to speak at all, critically or otherwise.”
  • And Mike Wilson is stepping down as editor of the Dallas Morning News after nearly six years in the job; Keith Campbell, the current managing editor, will take over. “Running a newspaper today is like swimming across a hot fudge river: You gorge yourself on the decadent pleasure of it, but you have to kick like hell to get to the other side,” Wilson writes. “So I’m full, and I’m tired. My immediate plan is to just recharge.”

New from CJR: Macon-Bibb County, and the unrelenting shock of COVID-19

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.