Lohrifink Auditorium was at capacity this past Friday for a discussion entitled “Presidential Debates: Performance, Spin and the Press” presented by the News Literacy Project. The discussion included Kathleen Parker, columnist at The Washington Post, Al Hunt, Washington Editor for Bloomberg News, and Chuck Todd, Political Director and Chief White House correspondent for NBC News.
The discussion was moderated by the infamous voice and surreal physical presence of Robert Siegel senior host of NPR’s All Things Considered. All involved are adamant supporters of the News Literacy Project which describes itself as an ‘innovative educational program that mobilizes seasoned journalists to help middle school and high school students sort fact from fiction in the digital age.’
The discussion touched upon a range of topics including the official terms of the presidential debates, the appropriate role of a moderator, body language in debate, and the difficulty of opinion formation in the context of post-debate media frenzy. Dominating the discussion however was a heated contestation of Candy Crawley’s real-time debate fact checking, an evaluation of combative debate body language, and personal reflections on the changing media landscape.
Right-of-center columnist Kathleen Parker served as a Republican-sympathizing counterpoint on an otherwise left-leaning panel. She alone was critical of moderator Candy Crowley’s conspicuous correction of Governor Romney during the second Presidential debate. Ms. Parker spoke to the difficulty of fact-checking and the fine line between factual truth and contextual or representative truth.
In politics, the truth is often manipulated to assume the likeness of a lie even if it retains its technical factual veracity. Due to the irreducibly complex nature of ‘truth’ she thought it imprudent for an impartial moderator to weigh in on the proceedings of the debate.
Opinion on the panel was divided, despite the personal, fist-bumping friendships evident onstage. Discussion of debate body language and the “changing media landscape” was particularly animated. Hunt argued that body language during the debate offered critical insight into the candidates temperament and personal capacity for leadership and diplomacy.
Todd on the other hand, criticized the debates as having more “style than substance.” Parker drew attention to gendered evaluations of body language during the debates. Whereas male viewers enjoyed the candidates combative posturing in the second debate, women felt uncomfortable with displays of physical tension.
With regards to the changing media landscape, Todd defended the rise of social media. He uses social media as a means of communicating with his audience and keeping abreast of the 24 hour news cycle. Parker, on the other hand, has resisted the incorporation of social media into her work and allows patience and critical thinking to guide her journalistic instincts. She criticized how social media seizes upon and popularizes the most trivial aspects of an event, for example Romney’s big bird comments.
But because these “jokes” go viral they reach audiences so massive that they essentially become news which the mainstream media feels obliged to acknowledge. Since the first televised presidential debates some 50 years ago the world of media has been changing. The evolution of modern media, from the advent of television to the rise of online publishing and social media have had a resounding impact upon our political process and, for better or for worse, will continue to do so in the future.