Jon Stewart As Debate Moderator: Fact-Checking, Subjectivity And A Future For Political Journalism

CNN’s Candy Crowley will moderate the 2nd presidential debate.  It will be in the infamous “town hall” setting, the one where “everyday” Americans (shitty haircut + struggling small business +  improbable accent) ask pre-vetted questions and the candidates stare into their mom-jean souls as they spit back slightly personalized rote talking points and reveal to the audience at home just how compassionate, intelligent and beer worthy they are.  (I’ll initiate the first Twitter joke: What the hell is a town hall?)

On Thursday night,  after Mitt Romney’s convincing “Robots can cry, too!” speech, CNN cut to Ms. Crowley and foreshadowed the tone of the incoming October debate. Paraphrasing here: “Well, the speech was good, but not earth shattering, and I spoke to two Romney camp people and they told me that convention speeches are supposed to be kinda shitty like this and, yeah, so what if he didn’t propose anything susbtantive…he doesn’t have to.”  It was as if she was doing an E! red carpet fashion critique with Joan Rivers, instead of, you know, making sense of the speech from a man who may become president. 

Watching her report on the convention, in the way that too many journalists do, commenting solely on the efficacy of campaign marketing and saying precious little on the validity of policy arguments, it wasn’t hard to imagine how she would moderate the debate: Wow, Mr. Obama, that was an eloquently phrased answer on not closing Gitmo, but who am I to evaluate the truth-claims of your legal policy? I’m just a political journalist, after all!  …Mr. Romney, who is your favorite character on Modern Family?” 

Given even more attention recently through the development of the fact-checking fiasco radiating from the Romney/Ryan campaign, media writer Mathew Ingram and journalism professor Jay Rosen’s critiques on political coverage are essential reading.  To summarize:

Romney and Ryan have been talking serious amounts of shit about Obama, much of it outright lies.  Rather than reporting it as: “Romney camp said this, but Obama camp said that,” several news outlets have explicitly called out the Romney camp: LIARS!  While you may think this is not unusual, most political journalists (Rosen says 95%) write and speak in what is called “he said/she said journalism.” 

This brand of coverage adopts a view from nowhere, and hides behind something called “objectivity” which, after watching too much CNN, reporters take to mean endlessly qualifying everything you say so that you end up saying nothing but what other people have said.  (After watching someone barf at a frat party Wolf Blitzer’s “objective” report would sound something like: “Good evening. I just spoke to two expert party-goers and they told me that a person just produced a pile of unprocessed food debris on what appears to be carpet.  However, after speaking with the person who allegedly vommed, he told me that the giant stain from undigested beer and cheeseburger was already there when he got to the party.  I, of course, was here as well, but in my pathetic attempt to appear balanced and objective I will rely on other people’s accounts even when their comments are blatantly self serving  and do nothing to help the viewer understand what is going on…Back to you.”)  

Miserable political reporting manifests in other ways too: You are already familiar with “horserace” coverage, where polls and tactics are privileged over all else.  There is also reporting on “insider gamesmanship,” (or, what Rosen identifies as the entirety of Politico.com’s content) where all reporters talk about is how effectively politicians fooled us, how deftly they dodged criticism, how slick their incoded messages were, how easily they manipulated the audience into focusing on some side issue instead of, ummm… how the oceans are about to boil. 

So, the media took one Jon Basedow baby step forward by calling out Romney, but then Romney’s people essentially said: “Yes ok, you caught us, but shitting on Obama with lies is working.  Now go beat off into a sock, media! ”  The question for political writers and readers then became: now what?

If most coverage is nothing but slurping up the savvyness of campaigns, can we eventually develop a type of journalism and viewership that cultivates not deference but critical thought? Rosen thinks so, and he sees a small but important change brewing, he calls it #presspushback .  (It’s when the lies or deceptions of politicians becomes its own story, when the press begins to see itself less as a purveyor of campaign information and more like an arbiter of the nation’s conversation.) 

We view it most nights with Rachel Maddow, in many of Frank Rich’s political columns, and we see it, in glimpses, on The Daily Show  (The interviews where Stewart gnaws on Jim Cramer’s bulbous skull or pisses on Tony Blair’s royal grin are especially good.  Consider also the famous clips during Katrina when Shep Smith goes bizerk on Sean Hannity or when Anderson Cooper and Tim Russert absolutely pwn incompetent government officials.)

This type of political journalism is aggressive, assertive and honest.  Rather than pretending to be inanimate observers, using the spectre of objectivity as an excuse to act dumb and not form conclusions, this kind of journalism is concerned with evaluating truth-claims, it treats the viewer like a critically thinking student rather than a consumer of political marketing product.  This type of political journalism is unafriad of bias accusations; we know Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart are liberals but they do their best to guide us through their internal deliberation; they are transparent about being intelligent adults with deeply held opinions (this is the essential role of the reporter: to go on an investigation and turn private discoveries into a public education).  This contrasts sharply with the mind-eroding, toxic drivel that oozes from the panels of Fox News and CNN, with the reports of Chuck Todd (NBC) or Wolf Blitzer.  They can only be relied upon to tell us what political operatives want us to think.  This has its use, but there’s a lot more to politics.     

A more assertive and open journalism, one that has more in common with a professor and her students than a reporter and her ill-formed conception of objectivity, could also be expressed in the official presidential debates. 

In the season’s penultimate episode of HBO’s Newsroom, this exact scenario was imagined.  (If you haven’t watched any Newsroom, its just like Game of Thrones minus the swords, the plot, the dragons, and none of the characters have functional genitalia.)

The lead, Jeff Daniels (Fly Away Home), tells some Republican operatives what we’ve all been thinking.  With too much structure, too little time, and too much power given to the candidates, the debates are more like talking-point GIFs, repeated over and over regardless of the question being asked.  Why not have a moderator who is more like a professor or a judge, one who has dominance over the debate and is most concerned with illuminating the most useful or persuasive arguments rather than desperately trying to appear fair. This boss moderator would say things like: Mr. President, nobody who just listened to that believes what you just said, or, Governor, I have a team of fact checkers streaming on my computer and that is a lie, care to answer again?  Someone like Jon Stewart would be perfect for the job.  (Eventually, as a society, we’ll have to correct the fact that the official debates are run by a shell company which is run by the two parties.)      

For now, fact-checking and boldy calling people out should become the new normal.

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3 thoughts on “Jon Stewart As Debate Moderator: Fact-Checking, Subjectivity And A Future For Political Journalism

  1. Jody and Ken says:

    Excellent! Wouldn’t it be grand if the NYT et al followed the model set by the NYT itself in their editorial: Romney Rewrites History? Or any of their other articles calling out Ryan and, to be fair, some Democrat ads, that egregiously distort the truth. The problem is that too many of us pick an ideological position (mine’s liberal) and then try to make the argument fit the shoe, rather than the other way around. I hear all kinds of carping about the absence of civility in political debates, but I’d gladly sacrifice civility for a healthy dollop of reasoned intelligence marshaling verifiable facts. Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart rule! Great piece. Happy to have discovered you on Freshly Pressed. Ken

    • Hozz says:

      Ken, thanks for the thoughtful reply. Yeah, it seems that journalists hide behind the need to be civil as an excuse for being neutral and just bad. When people say they are fed up with talking heads screaming at each other I think that has more to do with how idiotic the heads are and less to do with the actual screaming/intensity. I think watching two experts or professors go after it in a debate would be quite entertaining and insightful. The problem is the talking heads are just political operatives or “objective” journalists and everything that comes out of their mouths is everything we expect.

      • Jody and Ken says:

        Actually I was referring to politicians themselves, but the reference works as well for pundits (I don’t watch any of those shows). Seems to me that ever since Reagan began demonizing Dems we’ve not only seen a shrinking willingness for pols to work across the aisles, but there’s been a shift in political rhetoric, especially on the right, that equates disagreement with one’s own positions as morally questionable. I think that’s one of the reasons why Dems are associated with “facts” and Republicans are associated with “values.” Anyway, good essay. I’ll be back. Ken

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