BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Do we have a winner? [TAPE PLAYS]
JOE SCARBOROUGH: Everybody's - you know, you gotta wait till tomorrow to figure out who won this debate. Well, I'm going to say it tonight -- John Kerry won the debate-- [CHEERS] [END TAPE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's Republican Congressman turned MSNBC talk show host Joe Scarborough cutting through the crap, right after Thursday's ultimate example of must-see TV. In the auditorium of the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, moderator PBS's Jim Lehrer laid down the rules. [TAPE PLAYS]
JIM LEHRER: A green light will come on when 30 seconds remain in any given answer; yellow at 15; red at 5 seconds -- and then flashing red means time's up. There is also a backup buzzer system if needed. [END TAPE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All week long, the two war rooms were hard at work lowering expectations for their respective candidates, sending mixed messages praising the cunning while disparaging the competence of their opponent. Meanwhile, the media were sending mixed messages of their own, working themselves into a lather over the cataclysmic importance of the debate while huffing and puffing over the terms of engagement negotiated by the candidates that were certain to strangle the proceedings. But the TV pundits went further than that --not just lowering expectations for the debate, but for their own performance as commentators, because well -- they're only human. CNN's Tucker Carlson. [TAPE PLAYS]
TUCKER CARLSON: John Kerry obviously thought his appearance was significant enough to get a fake 'n' bake - you know - cosmetics matter. The campaigns understand that. I mean sure, it's shallow, but so is a lot of life - is shallow - and appearance actually does make a difference in the--
TUCKER CARLSON: Very deep point, actually [...?...].
TUCKER CARLSON: -- it is, it is a deep point. [END TAPE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: After the debate, cosmetics were an issue. True, not much was said about the Kerry tan -it seemed to have faded -- but the president got thumbs down for blinking, and his opponent an unavoidable thumbs up for height. Fox News's Brit Hume. [TAPE PLAYS]
BRIT HUME: There's a thing we have to worry about in television called head room, and that is when you're trying to match shots side by side, one of the things you do is you give both parties the same amount of head room in the shot. Because of Kerry's height, within the frame, his picture was necessarily bigger.
BRIT HUME: And the result was you had more lectern and less Bush, and in Kerry's shot, the other way around. [END TAPE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Cable's immediate reaction was noteworthy, because it didn't shrink from stating the obvious -- that Kerry performed better than the President. Usually that verdict, being the whole point of the thing, would not have been rendered so quickly. It's cable's habit to tug and twist every issue like a sore tooth to keep up the suspense. Not in this case. Even the conservatives from the Weekly Standard, the reliably pro-Bush Fred Barnes and Bill Kristol, had to concede on Fox-- [TAPE PLAYS]
FRED BARNES: I'll have to say John Kerry did better than I expected. I thought he was very good - very articulate. The one thing - and, and, and particularly in raising questions about decisions by President Bush.
MAN: Bill Kristol
BILL KRISTOL: Kerry was forceful and articulate, and he said two or three times that the president made a mistake in invading Iraq -- that was his core message. But I think he did a pretty good job, by his lights, of making the case for... [TAPE ENDS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that judgment was backed up by the omni-present and utterly meaningless measures by which public response is instantly gauged on television. CBS used people meters and some colored bars. [START TAPE]
MAN: Now, that 2 reading on the meter you saw there was about as high as anybody got tonight. Now moments later, after Kerry spoke, when President Bush responded, the meter abruptly dropped, and the average response from our uncommitteds actually briefly went negative. Watch. [END TAPE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Then there were the obligatory visits to the spin room -- an exercise in self-conscious manipulation that reporters engage in like apes on a treadmill. [STAR TAPE]
KAREN HUGHES: ...in fact voted for the war that he now calls a mistake and a diversion.
MAN: Karen Hughes, thank you very much. Tom, the fresh spin from the spin room. Back to you. [END TAPE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Even though no one -- no reporter, no audience member -- not even the spinners themselves take their remarks as anything other than theatre -- it's all part of the process. [START TAPE]
TOM BROKAW: ...let's go now to NBC's Campbell Brown who's there with Mike McCurry who served Bill Clinton as press secretary and has joined the Kerry campaign now. Campbell? [END TAPE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The next day, the newspapers offered more style and a little substance, including some fact-checking from the Associated Press, Reuters, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the L.A. times. For the most part, though, it was clear, as Eric Umansky noted in Slate, that (quote) "If you watch the debate, go for a nice walk, because you largely don't need to read the papers. They have two general genres: transcript-heavy lead stories and studiously non-partisan palaver, aka news analysis. In fact, if you really wanted to keep your head clear and sharp, you would have switched off your TV right after the candidates shook hands and left the stage, because the rest is just confusion, and if you stay tuned in, especially this week, you won't remember what happened on Thursday at all." MSNBC's Joe Scarborough. [START TAPE]
JOE SCARBOROUGH: Karl Rove knows John Kerry won this debate. You've followed these campaigns. You've followed a lot of campaigns before 2004. What's Karl Rove thinking tonight, and what's he going to do tomorrow morning to launch a counter-offensive? [END TAPE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As early as Friday, Fox News was quoting Kerry as saying some very odd things on the campaign trail, not reported anywhere else and denied by his campaign -- things about manicures and being a metrosexual. But those are what Zell Miller would call spitballs. If you're Karl Rove, and you want to control the debate over the debate, you're going to launch your biggest gun. [START TAPE] [APPLAUSE]
GEORGE W. BUSH: We had a great debate last night. [CHEERS] [END TAPE] [MUSIC]