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Presidential Debates: Mile-High Masochism

By Ben L. Kaufman · October 3rd, 2012 · On Second Thought
on second thought 10-3
I dread presidential debates.

The first one is in Denver this week (tonight if you’re reading this the day CityBeat comes out, Oct. 3).
I’ll watch out of a sense of duty as CityBeat’s media critic.

Forget the quadrennial fuss over uninvited minor party candidates. Having them on the podium would make this ordeal livelier. However, lively risks spontaneity and that’s something the candidates and sponsors want to avoid. Even if third party candidates take part, our next president will be Obama or Romney.

Other than “gotcha!” moments, when was the last time a presidential debate was more than tired talking point responses to a so-called moderator?

Or, put it this way, when did candidates go beyond zingers and one-liners and mix it up so vigorously that they needed a moderator? It may have been Nixon-Kennedy, the first televised presidential debates.

I’ve seen the images and heard and read about the four televised 1960 debates so often that I can’t remember if I actually watched. I probably didn’t; no TV during grad school and I spent three nights a week putting the Minnesota Daily to bed at our printer.

What did Nixon and JFK argue about? Missile Gap? Defending fascist Nationalists on Quemoy and Matsu islands from Godless Atheistic Red Chinese? Radio listeners thought Nixon won the debate. Viewers said JFK. In the era of TV ascendency, we know Nixon and his five o’clock shadow weren’t ready for prime time image-making, and JFK was.

After a hiatus, presidential and vice-presidential debates resumed in 1976 but networks and candidates’ handlers tamed them. Today, debates aren’t debates. They’re As Seen On TV encounters. Barring surprises, they’ll be so bland and useless that candidates’ spinmeisters, network broadcasters and pundits, tweeters, bloggers, cable talking heads and print columnists immediately try tell us what we heard actually meant.

I’ll listen to these explanations out of unbridled masochism.

Still, questions on climate change and the war in Afghanistan, which both campaigns hope to ignore, could enliven the debates even if the candidates duck and weave. 

Even so, every once in a while we get a memorable one-liner.

Who can forget (or remember) President Gerald Ford’s gaff in his debate with Jimmy Carter in 1976? Ford declared, “There is no Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe.” Washingtonpost.com says Ford appeared to win the debate until news media wrote of little else for days and convinced voters that the incumbent was clueless.

In their 1980 debate, President Jimmy Carter attacked challenger Ronald Reagan’s Medicare proposals and Reagan rebuked him with the one-liner that defined the election and entered the language: “There you go again.”

Vice president Dan Quayle stumbled in his 1988 debate when he equated his qualifications to JFK’s and Sen. Lloyd Bentsen zinged him with “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

Ross Perot’s hapless 1992 running mate, Admiral William Stockdale, opened with “Who am I? Why am I here? I’m not a politician.”

That same year, Al Gore mocked the president seeking re-election, saying, “George Bush taking credit for the Berlin Wall coming down is like the rooster taking credit for the sunrise.”

Since then, crippling one-liners have been self-inflicted away from debates:

“I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”

“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

“You can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska …”

“It’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them …”
Then there’s what might be this election’s pivotal misstep: “There are 47 percent … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it — that that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them … These are people who pay no income tax … [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

We’ll also get one 90-minute vice presidential debate. I’m looking forward to that. Biden-Ryan should be livelier than Obama and Romney.


CURMUDGEON NOTES:

•    I was in the Pacific Northwest and the three-hour time difference disrupted my already lousy sleep patterns. I dozed and listened to the BBC World Service on a local FM station when a familiar growl awakened me: WVXU’s Howard Wilkinson. You don’t work with a guy for a quarter century and not know his distinctive voice. BBC was in Cincinnati for an Obama visit and it wanted the best local politics reporter. Howard got up early. BBC got what it wanted. I eventually went back to sleep, lulled by BBC’s Humphrey Humphrey Humphreys reporting from some slum street in Dontunnastan.

•    Enquirer Publisher Margaret Buchanan quit the UC board last week. It was a conflict of interests from the day she took her seat in 2006. She told the Enquirer, “My news team is reporting aggressively on the departure of UC President Greg Williams and the search for the next president.

The credibility that is so important to our news team’s work is my highest priority, and I did not want my involvement with UC to make it uncomfortable or confusing for them or for the community.”

The conflict existed when she helped spend taxpayers’ and students’ money for six years or hired Greg Williams as president. Her Road to Damascus moment apparently came in the fallout from Williams’ surprise resignation without explanation and curious $1.3 million parting gift. 

Now, to avoid another conflict of interest, she should resign from the executive committee of 3CDC where she has more than a passing interest in how her paper covers the private redeveloper of the city’s urban core.

These are the kinds of conflicts of interest that compromise the paper’s integrity and long have been unacceptable for reporters. Buchanan isn’t the first Enquirer publisher or editor to ignore a conflict of interest that raised questions about the integrity of related news stories. She probably won’t be the last. It would be ideal if everyone on the paper were bound by the same ethical standards.  

•    Enquirer use of Freedom of Information Acts continues to pay off. Friday’s Cliff Peale story about the surprise resignation of UC President Greg Williams draws on information obtained through FOIA. Granted, there is no smoking gun; whatever Williams’ reasons for quitting, he was smart enough to keep them out of memos and emails subject to FOIA. What Peale is learning from documents and interviews suggests an irreparable breach between UC’s board and president on how each should do its job.

•    Sunday’s Enquirer devotes two pages in Local News to sell its various media services. Most Enquirer services look to  newer ways it can provide news to readers (viewers?). Pay walls are there, too. Now, if the bean counters at Gannett would allow the Enquirer to open its archives to subscribers, the deal would be complete.

•    Sunday’s Enquirer also exhibited a rediscovered spine with a major editorial opposing the streetcar project for Cincinnati. The reasoning, as far as it goes, is sound: there is no coherent plan to finance construction and operations and Cincinnati has more pressing infrastructure needs.

•    For a related look into the Enquirer’s future, check the New York Times business page on Monday. It reports changes ordered by Enquirer owner Gannett at its Burlington, Vt., daily. They’re slightly ahead of our paper and reactions there are not as upbeat as those in memos to readers from the Enquirer’s editor and publisher.

•    Fox News should not have apologized for broadcasting the suicide of a fleeing police suspect last week. Fox blamed inept use of its delay on live coverage. Lisa Wells, on WLW 700 Saturday, argued that Fox let it run for ratings; Fox knew what it was doing and there was no mistake. I can buy that. Ratings are why TV follows police chases live. In the video shot from a helicopter that followed the chase through traffic and on foot, the guy stops running, puts a handgun to his head and fires. His arm jerks and he slumps forward, away from the camera. So why apologize to a country where violent games and films are top earners and homicides generally are treated as a cost of urban living? If TV doesn’t expect something dramatic, why the live coverage from helicopters following fugitives and cop cars?

•    Maybe vivid writing explains why Brits continue to buy daily papers. I culled this from the home page of London’s Telegraph: Chill wind blows for Mitt Romney in Ohio: As late September gales blew his dyed black fringe free from its gelled moorings, Romney's tanned face crumpled into a frown.

•    A friend found this on NPR’s website. It promotes a broadcast by Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR’s Africa-based  correspondent. In part, the promo said, “She also describes the stories that have been exciting, including the U.S. presidential race of the Kenyan-born Sen. Barack Obama.” The promo was dated Oct. 9, 2008. Does that make NPR the most authoritative news medium to buy the “Birther” conspiracy?

•    It’s a dead horse, but I have to beat it. Why do local news media tie unrelated homicides to nearby institutions? Killings on Over-the-Rhine’s Green Street unfailingly are described as “near Findlay Market.” Last week, Local 12 repeatedly linked a Corryville street shooting to UC although no one except Local 12 made that connection. Why didn’t the TV folks link the shooting to the University Plaza Kroger store which probably was even closer, or to Walgreens and CVS?

•    Winston Churchill is one of the people credited with this or a similar aphorism: "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on." Today, he’d probably say, “A lie gets around the world in seconds after it’s posted on YouTube and it can’t be recalled.” So much for Madonna’s onstage lie that went viral after an audience member posted her line, “We have a black Muslim in the White House.” Now, she says she was being ironic.  I don’t know what’s scarier, listening to Madonna ranting on politics or True Believers hearing her as affirmation of their deeply held fears about Obama.

•    Recently, Fox and Friends showed Obama talking with an actor dressed as a pirate. Fox said “The White House doesn’t have the time to meet with the prime minister of Israel, but this pirate got a sit-down in the Oval Office yesterday.” Later, Fox used the image as its “Shot of the Morning,” according to the AP and jimromenesko.com. Fox host Steve Doocy said, “Here’a quick look at what President Obama is up to, making sure he didn’t forget to mark International Talk Like a Pirate Day.’

Uh, no. As the AP explained. The photo “was taken as a punchline for a joke Obama delivered to the White House Correspondents Association dinner in 2009 about the administration talking to enemies as well as friends.”

Fox & Friends admitted on a tweet that the photo was more than three years old but there was no evidence Fox told its cable audience about the partisan network fraud.

•    National Review, a long respected conservative magazine, proved it’s no better than Fox. It Photoshopped the Oct. 1 (Monday) cover photo to underline the wider GOP accusation that pro-choice Democrats are the pro-abortion party of death. Reuters/Newscom disowned the image, saying its original photo “was altered by National Review” in print and digital editions. Charlotte Observer photographer Todd Sumlin, who provided his shot from the same angle, told jimromenesko.com, “I was on the photo platform directly behind the President at the Democratic National Convention . . . (P)osters the North Carolina delegates are holding were changed from ‘Forward’ to ‘Abortion’.”

•    It’s not clear who promised what to whom but the family of murdered Ambassador Chris Stevens says CNN used his journal without permission. CNN found the journal in the ruined Benghazi consulate and relied on it for some reporting without saying it was Stevens’ private thoughts. My gut response: don’t promise anything and use it. His journal contained information relevant to the attack that killed him and three more Americans. The only reason I can see for State Department objections is that the journal might have been more revealing than officials wished.

•    I’m grateful to Eric Alterman, The Nation’s media columnist, who reported that when “asked about the film that seemingly inspired the riots and attacks, (Romney) echoed exactly the same sentiments contained in the Cairo embassy statement that he and his putative champions had previously found so contemptible. ‘I think the whole film is a terrible idea. I think [that] making it, promoting it, showing it is disrespectful to people of other faiths . . . I think people should have the common courtesy and judgment — the good judgment — not to be, not to offend other peoples’ faiths’.”

As Alterman put it, “There you have it: Mitt Romney, terrorist apologist.” And if you think Alterman’s indulging in partisan hyperbole, here is the embassy statement issued before riots:

“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”

    •    Off-the-record always is tricky. Can you ever use what you learned? Can you use it if you disguise the source? Nothing is farther off the record than anything Britain’s reigning monarch says in private. Quoting her Just Isn’t Done. Now, Britain’s press is trying to assess the damage from the most tempest in a porcelain tea cup: a BBC reporter quoted Queen Elizabeth’s impatience with efforts to deport a radical imam to the United States to face terrorism charges. One does not say what, if anything, the Queen says to One. Talk about blowing access to a source. BBC and its reporter are new nominees for Golden Grovel Award.

•    Then there is Andrew Mitchell, the sneering conservative parliamentary official who dismissed London bobbies as “fucking plebs.” He was outraged when they asked him to ride his bicycle through a side gate rather than the front gate at the prime minister’s residence at No. 10 Downing Street.

Damning police as his social inferiors is perfectly in tune with the traditional Conservative Party but it’s Bad Form for a guy whose governing party is trying to dump its elite and elitist history and image.

Mitchell’s fiercely upper class insult resonates through British society. The minister is posh — the right family, schools and universities, if not a Guards regiment. Constables are not.

“Fucking” isn’t the problem. “Pleb” is. The New York Times explained that Mitchell’s slur implies that the London Metropolitan Police — also known as Scotland Yard — are “worthless nobodies” in class-conscious Tory Britain.



CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com




 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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