Journalism

This year’s debates are going to be terrible

Mock Debate

Because we can’t even agree on what makes a good debate anymore.

The NBC News Commander-In-Chief Forum was a good idea on paper. Two of the biggest problems with modern political debates are the way that they cram too many issues into too little time, so that there isn’t enough room to examine any of them in detail, and the way moderators like to tailor their questions for each of the individual candidates instead of just setting the topic of discussion and letting the debaters challenge each other. Having an extended, one-on-one interview with each candidate should have been an ideal solution.

In practice, the forum somehow made both problems worse. And the reaction to it is a pretty good example of why we can’t have nice things.

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The New Format fallacy

Back this summer, as part of his less-than-subtle attempt to tell American journalism how to fix itself, Aaron Sorkin inserted his vision of an idealized debate into last year’s Republican primary. The whole thing turned into a case study in how much better The Newsroom was at identifying the problems in modern journalism than it was at coming up with solutions, and how the show managed to be half-right and yet go horribly wrong. But considering what did and didn’t work in this week’s real presidential debate, it’s worth taking another look.

I mentioned right after the debate that I thought its biggest problem was the disengaged approach from moderater Jim Lehrer. That mattered more than usual because this debate actually did include a kind of revolutionary new format, which mostly did away with the tightly structured response times we’re used to from previous presidential debates. It’s a promising trend, but it means we really do need the moderator to play a more agressive role.

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Aaron Sorkin is telling us yesterday’s news

HBO, "The Newsroom"

I thought about going with “Aaron Sorkin is yesterday’s news,” but that seemed excessively mean. And probably inaccurate.

A recurring subplot in Sorkin’s previous worst show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, dealt with a character who was developing a TV show about the United Nations, which he was planning to put on HBO because it was too highbrow for the network TV audience — an idea that Amanda Peet’s fake programming director tried to dissuade him of. So it’s probably telling that now, after Studio 60 collapsed under its own baggage and Sorkin himself got to put a show on HBO, his big idea was apparently to make Studio 60 again.

The Newsroom works considerably better than Studio 60 did, largely because it doesn’t have to sell the idea that a fake version of Saturday Night Live is somehow central to the soul of American society. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t seem to have advanced its analysis of the news industry much beyond a few wistful lines about how much better America was when a bunch of old white men told us what to think every night.

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You’re Violating the Rules of Being a Weatherman

One of the unfortunate aftereffects of being a reporter is that I’m actually interested by journalistic ethics flaps. Actually, I’ve kind of gone beyond interested, because the journalistic ethics code is one of those bizarre things that makes less sense the more you think about it. Still, I can get dragged in on occasion, particularly when the issue involves news outlets I use.

So when, during the course of driving to get some lunch today, I caught this report about KUOW (Puget Sound’s public radio service!) dumping Cliff Mass from his regular gig forecasting the weather on Weekday, I ended up sitting in my car with the engine off waiting for the story to finish. It was a nice callback to my days in public-service journalism — that rare profession held in high regard by the people who actually do it and by virtually no one else.

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