You Take That From Him?!

When I was in junior high school, fist fights in the yard we’re a popular entertainment. Two kids would start a “rank out contest” (also called “playing the dozens”), and a crowd would gather. Calling people names (“your mother wears army boots” was a popular starter) was fun, but the crowd wanted more. So they’d egg the contestants on, and often, a fight would ensue.

That’s exactly what seems to be happening in our presidential debates, as a revealing article in today’s NY Times makes clear (Even as the Candidates Make Nice, the TV Crew Hopes for a Fight). There wasn’t much antagonism in last Thursday’s Democratic debate, and that didn’t please the guys in the control room, who, like my friends in junior high, wanted to see blood. Wolf Blitzer’s question about Hillary’s naivete was apparently instigated by CNN Washington bureau chief David Bohrman, prodding Blitzer over his earwig. But even as they push for more aggression, the guys in charge seem to know that this isn’t really what the audience wants. The best ratings in the South Carolina debate occurred when the candidates were talking policy.

In general, I’ve been pretty disgusted by cable news’ coverage of the campaigns. We get most of our news from just a few sources and they have tremendous power to decide who is really in this contest. One tool they use is something we know a little bit about — editing. For example, Edwards was doomed not so much by a lack of traction with the American people but by a lack of coverage by media corporations that didn’t like his anti-corporate message.

After the South Carolina debate, the wrap up I saw gave Hilary thirty seconds of uninterrupted coverage in closeup. Edwards got the same amount of time — but the camera was aimed at the crowd the whole time and only picked him up in a monitor in the back of the room. At least I think he was on that monitor — it was so small that I couldn’t be sure. And when Edwards dropped out of the race, CNN later reported on his speech — MOS. We saw his face, but the announcer talked through the whole thing. His actual words were never heard.

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