BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. The primary season is over, and, oh, how we'll miss it – not just for the dignity and substance evinced by the candidates but also for the heroic conduct of the media, focused as they were, single- mindedly, on the pressing issues of the day. [CLIPS] GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you think Reverend Wright loves America as much as you do? MALE CORRESPONDENT: His campaign has some obstacles, with revelations about 400-dollar haircuts, half a million - FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Senator Clinton, where are you on this, Red Sox or Yankees? CHARLIE GIBSON: I noticed you put one on yesterday, but you've talked about this before, but it comes up again and again when we talked to voters. And, as you may know, it is all over the Internet. [END CLIPS] BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Maybe “single-minded” wasn't the right word. The reference from ABC's Charlie Gibson in the final debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was to Obama's choice not to wear an American flag lapel pin.
Economic crisis, global warming, oil prices and war got discussed in the debates, but not to the exclusion of baseball loyalties, 400-dollar haircuts and lapel couture. In that Clinton-Obama debate, it wasn't clear who won, but it sure was apparent who lost. [CLIP] CHARLIE GIBSON: We'll take one more commercial break. We'll come back, say goodnight. Stay with us. [CROWD HUBBUB] And oh, you can – [LAUGHS] – the crowd's turning on me. [CROWD HUBBUB/LAUGHTER] The crowd is turning on me. We'll be back in one minute. [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: As the general election presidential campaign gets unofficially but nonetheless contentiously underway, it appears that the booing isn't over. Presented with a proposal for a New York City debate hosted by Mayor Bloomberg and ABC News, both McCain's campaign and Obama's said, no, thank you. They both have expressed a desire to meet and discuss issues in a public forum, but not a forum mediated by the stars of TV news.
Their thinking isn't entirely clear, but the signals are that both campaigns believe the network's preoccupation with incendiary side issues prevents the candidates from delivering their messages.
Writing for The American Prospect, associate editor Ezra Klein welcomed a media-unmediated candidate forum. Any argument that political journalists are needed to explore policy issues, he says, is unpersuasive. EZRA KLEIN: I would dispute that actual journalists know a whole lot about policy. If we wanted to do debates where people got asked very tough questions, there would be a way to do it. We have these things called universities. D.C. is full of think tanks. There would really be ways to get actual experts onto a stage and have them interrogate the candidates.
For campaign reporters, policy is not their job. Campaigns are. And so, they ask about campaigns. BOB GARFIELD: And you also suggested that there is an inherent conflict of interest because they're not just trying to get answers to their questions but, if they work for a network, sound bites for the next 11 broadcasts. EZRA KLEIN: What the media can't have is a boring debate. That is death to them. And fair enough. But sometimes the sort of meat of politics is quite boring. I've been to these town halls. They're quite boring. Frankly, McCain and Obama can be quite boring.
And part of the problem for the media, by the way, is that they're steeped it in already. So they've heard these answers on gas prices. They've heard the answers on health care. They're trying to get somewhere new.
But people don't tune in ‘til relatively late and nobody tunes in all at once, so it actually is good for voters when a lot of this gets repeated. But it isn't sort of what I, as a reporter, am trained to do, which is push the story forward. BOB GARFIELD: The gamble, I guess, that both campaigns are taking here is that the networks, having been pushed out of the center of the process, will still cover it. Is that a good bet? EZRA KLEIN: It's a pretty good bet because, let's say, ABC and NBC and CBS decide not to, right? And Fox and CNN decide not to. What's going to happen that night is there are going to be a whole lot of people watching MSNBC.
Additionally, all the campaigns have stated that they want this covered streamed, live on YouTube, whatever it may be. It makes it much easier for the campaigns to exert leverage over the process because the essential scarcity is their willingness to debate, not somebody's willingness to cover their debate. BOB GARFIELD: And that's the issue of the follow-up question. In a town hall format everybody has written their question and they're sitting in the audience, and through some vetting process they get to ask it.
And come hell or high water, when they are pointed to, that's the question they're going to ask, even if the last words out of the mouth of one of the candidates is a bald-faced lie and a stunning news development, what have you.
Without the opportunity for follow-up, won't these things just turn out to be 90-minute commercials for the candidates? EZRA KLEIN: I would actually think that the most encouraging idea would be that the candidates provide that sort of check on one another. If Barack Obama, who's pretty well steeped in things relating to John McCain, hears John McCain make a bald-faced lie, presumably he would say that.
McCain's famous sort of hundred years in Iraq comment, that's from a town hall in New Hampshire. It was some guy in the back – I was there – I was a few seats away – and the guy went after McCain four times. He kept coming back. And McCain let him, I mean, to his credit.
And so, I would suggest a) that the media hasn't done a great job of doing follow-ups so far, and I would suggest b) that there's no real reason to think they're the only ones who can. BOB GARFIELD: You know, what's a little ironic about this, Ezra, is that both of these guys have had their careers substantially propelled on the fairly fawning treatment that they've had from the national press.
When it comes to dissing the media, you know, if it had been a Clinton/Romney campaign, this would have, you know, made perfect sense. It's a little surprising that this emanates from McCain and Obama. EZRA KLEIN: I guess it could be, although I think that, you know, they're not taking an aggressive stance against the media. They're just saying this will be an open debate. Anyone can cover it. It'll be on the Internet, and it's not going to be moderated by somebody who's trying to get content for their network.
It's, oddly enough, a very mild thing they're saying. I mean, and imagine, the media has a real role here. They can hold the debate and then right after - right after, they could have their best people on the TV fact- checking, saying who was more truthful and who wasn't.
I don't see this as an aggressive challenge against the media. I see this as a sort of more natural allocation of roles. And the media's incentives are not necessarily right for running a debate, but they are right for adjudicating one after it happens.
And it would be a good thing if the media, rather than trying to gin up controversy in the question-and-answer period, attempted to try to settle disputes in the cool air of the aftermath. BOB GARFIELD: So you don't even think of this as a reaction to the last straw of Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos’ performance in the penultimate Democratic debate. EZRA KLEIN: No. I mean, I think that the problem for the media is that they have performed so poorly that the candidates can do this. Nobody's going to run in and demand their inclusion. The voters don't think they've been doing a great job.
Insofar as Stephanopoulos and Gibson have a role here, it's been in making it possible for the candidates to probably do, you know, in some ways what they've always wanted to do, which is get out from under their thumb.
And I really hope that this does force the media to reevaluate what would add value, what would make it so people wanted us involved.
If you want to focus on trivia, you can, but if you do, don't be surprised when people turn on you. If you're out for yourself in this process, the voters aren't going to try and save you. The candidates aren't going to try and save you. And when you lose your leverage, you lose it. BOB GARFIELD: Ezra, thank you. EZRA KLEIN: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Ezra Klein is an associate editor and a blogger for The American Prospect.