Dinosaur Media Debate Moderators

Americans love time-honored traditions, so it was a little disappointing that last Saturday night’s GOP primary debate did not include the traditional, crowd-pleasing moment when Newt Gingrich leaps off the stage and tackles the debate moderators.  It’s curious that we were deprived of our entertainment, because the moderation was pretty bad, especially from Diane Sawyer.

In Sawyer’s defense, it looked like she might have been taking some sort of medication, perhaps to battle a cold.  If she wasn’t feeling well, why didn’t ABC rotate someone else into her seat? 

Not all of Sawyer’s awfulness could be written off to an ill-timed swig of NyQuil.  She talked far too much, eating up valuable debate time with rambling set-ups for what should have been simple questions.  She’s not even very good at reading Democrat press releases, as when she tried singing from the White House hymn book on Obama’s magical “middle class tax cut.”  From ABC’s official transcript:

DIANE SAWYER: I wanna move on if I can, to another question which represents some of the urgent and tough choices presidents have to make, because this one is coming up soon, December 31st. And it is the payroll tax cut. And as we know, the payroll tax cut, which funds the Social Security– fund in this country is part of the argument, part of the debate, part of the consideration about the economy in this country right now.

And– by some estimates, if this tax cut expires on December 31st, it could add as much as $1,000 to the tax burden of American working families. And I know you are divided down the middle, if I can turn to you, Congresswoman Bachmann, and we know that you are a tax attorney, and– you’re familiar with these issues. Should this tax cut go?

(Emphasis mine.)  The payroll tax cut funds Social Security?  I’m sure the White House spelled its talking points out better for you than that, Diane.  After all, this is one of the most important issues facing the country.  It’s part of the argument, part of the debate, part of the consideration about the economy in this country, whatever the hell that means.  Barack Obama says so!

Bachmann proceeded to take Sawyer to school, correctly noting that Obama’s “tax cut” is a “gimmick” that doesn’t really cut anyone’s taxes at all – it’s robbing the already insolvent and unsustainable Social Security fund of $111 billion, so the tax-and-spend President can stuff a little cash in middle-class pockets and pretend he’s worried about the tax burden on families.

Later, Sawyer gave an elaborate wind-up to the immigration question, which was very pointedly shaped as an attack on Newt Gingrich.  I happen to think Gingrich’s suggested immigration reform is bizarre and poorly thought out, but debate moderators are not supposed to be interrogators.  Just ask the question and let the candidate give his answer, for crying out loud! 

DIANE SAWYER: And I’d like to turn now, if we can, to the issue of immigration. And so many people talk about it in their living room, talk about it around their dinner tables at night– if I can. And can we just do one thing for the interest of time? Can we stipulate that every single person on this stage tonight has said the number one thing to do is secure the borders, secure the borders, secure the borders, secure the borders. You may have slightly different prescriptions to do it. But, we stipulate that, that that’s what you all want to do first.

I’d like to turn, now, the question, the 11 million undocumented people in this country. And Speaker Gingrich, I’m gonna come back to you because you have talked about citizen review boards to review individual cases, that treated them in individual basis. You– you’ve– you mentioned the fact that someone who’s been here 25 years, served the community, should get special consideration under this board. How many years is the threshold for your– is it five years– has served the community under the criteria that you’ve set out before, five years also a candidate?

She went on to argue with Gingrich about his answer.  How many people thought they were tuning in to watch the Sawyer-Gingrich Immigration Debate?  Does anyone doubt that if Sawyer had been moderating one of Rick Perry’s early pre-implosion debates, this question would have been posed to him first, and phrased as an attack against the then-frontrunner from Texas?

By the time she got around to assembling her contentious immigration question for Mitt Romney, it was hard to understand what Sawyer was even trying to say:

DIANE SAWYER: Okay, I’m gonna turn it to k– to Governor Romney because we heard Speaker Gingrich say we’re not gonna round people up and deport them. And I think at one point– you said something similar in a meeting at Bloomberg that– that they’re not going to be tracking everybody down and moving them out. And yet, to our colleague David Muir– wanna try to clarify something. You said, “You seem to indicate that people should go back home to their country.” And in some cases it may mean as much as five years if they get at the back of the line or more. Are you saying– how many people should be sent back home to their countries? Should they be tracked down to establish who they are, sent back home to their country?

What the hell does her “colleague David Muir” have to do with anything?  This was supposed to be a debate for the edification of American voters, not the media priesthood.

Sawyer’s co-anchor, George Stephanopolous, conducted himself much better, although it was laugh-out-loud funny for a former Bill Clinton operative to be the one who asked, “Should voters consider marital infidelity when making their choice for President?”

Out of curiosity, will any top political operatives for Republican presidents be tapped to serve as news anchors?  Will Karl Rove or Ari Fleischer get to moderate the next Democrat primary debate?

These GOP primary debates, and the general election debates to come, present a Jurassic Park where all of the worst tendencies of the dinosaur media are set free.  Outright political bias is a big issue, especially given the revolving door between Democrat Party politics and the media, as exemplified by Stephanopolous.  It’s tough for even sincere attempts at fair-mindedness to overcome the results of a long immersion in partisan politics – a truth the media only recognizes when it’s applied to Republicans, of course.  The howls of protest from liberals if any Republican equivalent of Stephanopolous were allowed to moderate a Democrat or general election debate would be absolutely deafening, and it wouldn’t matter if the Administration he served had been out of office for a decade… particularly if elements of that Administration still represented a very active and powerful force in Republican Party politics, as the Clintons are for Democrats.

Narrative bias is a serious problem, too.  Questions tend to be selected and phrased in accordance with media-approved storylines.  This will extend well beyond the debate stage, as particular moments from the relatively small number of general election debates are used to shape ensuing weeks of campaign coverage.  That’s one of the reasons debating skill is so important, a point challenged by some observers who feel primary voters are placing too much importance on Newt Gingrich’s superb debating skills, or Rick Perry’s debate stumbles. 

It’s true that the eventual GOP candidate will only face Obama on the debate stage a couple of times, but those encounters will be valuable opportunities to stampede the dinosaur media in advantageous directions.   Even discounting partisan considerations, the challenger will always have fewer opportunities to exercise narrative control than an incumbent President, and those moments must be seized.

Perhaps worst of all, the dinosaur media suffers from an obsession with celebrity.  It’s all about them.  News personalities see themselves as at least equal to presidential candidates in status.  Dinosaur-moderated debates reinforce this attitude by placing such a heavy emphasis on celebrity moderators… very few of whom are the kind of celebrity that would actually bring viewers to a debate.  I’d be willing to bet $10,000 of Mitt Romney’s money that absolutely no one tuned into the Saturday night debate because Diane Sawyer was involved.  ABC News has far more astute (and terse) reporters who could have occupied her chair.

The New Media has fewer “institutions,” and its stars tend to wax and wane based on the current quality of their work, rather than years of accumulated seniority.  Old Media is not merely hidebound, but arrogant – it sees itself as a player on the stage, not merely a humble conveyor of facts.  It has its own concerns, which it sees as more important than whatever heartland America happens to be droning on about.  The ability to take control of the narrative, and compel the media to discuss his or her issues, is important to candidates of either party, but absolutely vital for Republicans.  Conservative voters thoroughly understand this, which is why they imagine a screen crawl of worst-case headlines when they look at each of the Republican candidates… and recoil from presidential aspirants who seem utterly incapable of imagining those headlines, let alone rewriting them.