A Failed Media and a Cynical Politics

If ever there were an exemplar of today’s relationship between media and politics in the United States, it would certainly be the first presidential debate of the 2012 election season. The first debate held on October 3 was marred by a lackadaisical moderator, an absent Barack Obama and a charge by Mitt Romney to defund public broadcasting, thereby forcing Big Bird to join the ranks of millions of unemployed Americans.

The relationship between media and politics is often complex, ebbing and flowing with the prevailing narrative of the day and responding to public polls at warp speed during an election season. The election’s first presidential debate was a tangible reminder of the tension between the news media and the government and politicians it supposedly watches over.

On that stage were three men representing some of Americans’ greatest anxieties over media and politics. Jim Lehrer, an experienced and trusted journalist, served as moderator. He had independent control over the questions asked in an effort to supposedly insure an unbiased and objective element and represented a powerful news media acting as gatekeeper. President Obama, a likable enough incumbent, hasn’t created enough jobs or fulfilled many of his promises. During the debate, he couldn’t even explain his signature domestic achievement Obamacare or effectively respond to distortions of his record. And Mitt Romney, a defensive challenger, came into the debate tarnished by shifty comments offending 47 percent of Americans. His comfort with changing his political positions to fit the day’s latest polls and news cycle is second to none, and he stayed true to form during the debate.

Lehrer, Obama and Romney each contributed to this political kabuki. Presidential debates are a quadrennial American ritual that, once concluded, seem to yield more hate, distrust and cynicism for both the news media and the candidates it covers. The debate was a carefully crafted spectacle, with all three participants spending days rehearsing before the big performance. And yet the subsequent fallout—that Obama lost and Romney won, that Lehrer was steamrolled by the candidates and squandered control, that public broadcasting and Big Bird are valuable social artifacts—was nothing more than a reactionary and self-fulfilling media and politics that are, by now, de rigueur.

It wasn’t Lehrer’s inability to retain control over the candidates or the debate itself; it was what he represents to the American people: a liberal media in constant pursuit of the holy grail of journalistic objectivity that collapses under its own self-regard. Lehrer’s dismal performance was mocked online and in subsequent news articles, with many Americans relegating him as a proxy to the dysfunctional news media. While we don’t know how Americans would have reacted had Lehrer performed well, we do know the fallout from his performance was incited by existing, trending antagonism toward the news media felt by many Americans. (See eM&P’s feature on Jonathan Ladd’s new book, Why Americans Hate the Media and How It Matters.) What’s more is that there was little to analyze or reflect on after the debate’s end because Obama lost—badly. In what is “the largest margin of victory in the history of Gallup's post-debate polling,” 72 percent of debate watchers declared Romney the winner, while only 20 percent said the same of Obama.

Everyone performed as expected. Romney, who was trailing behind Obama in the media’s horserace leading up to the debate, came up from behind to retake the lead. Obama, unable to effectively defend his record, seemed distant, aloof and professorial (all adjectives the media love to use when describing the President). And Lehrer, the media’s trusted and chosen volunteer, fumbled the role of moderator, thereby ensuring more distrust of the news media and cynicism for its role in our democracy.

Sixty-seven million Americans tuned in to watch the first presidential debate. The only other television event that surpasses this in number of viewers is the Super Bowl, which hovers around 100 million viewers each year. As of Tuesday, October 9, Romney—for the first time in months—has taken the lead over Obama in a Pew Research Center national poll, 49 percent to 45 percent.

The news media got what it wanted: control over the debate and its broadcast, a trailing candidate retaking the lead and an incumbent seemingly falling from grace. Romney got what he wanted: an opportunity to articulate his positions to a large national audience, refute Obama’s policies and take the lead in the race. And Obama (mostly) got what he wanted: an opportunity to let Romney articulate new positions from his earlier ones to a large national audience (to later be used against him in TV ads), refute Romney’s new and earlier positions and show how exhausted he is due to his day job. The question, however, remains: what did the American people get?

( Image Credit: AP/Michael Reynolds)

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Andrew Lewandowski is a Georgetown University graduate student in the Communication, Culture & Technology program.