By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The media debate the debate

In my latest for the Guardian, I argue that though McCain and Obama may have debated to a draw on substance, media reaction suggests that McCain’s grumpy, condescending demeanor may have given the edge to Obama.

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  1. G

    This just shows how wrong I can be about the undecideds. I listened to the debate and came away, like you Dan, with the sense that this would probably be seen as a good night for McCain because Obama never took the gloves off.Axelrod and Co. apparently have their antenna well tuned to the undecideds in the middle.

  2. Tom Schreiner

    Those who credit McCain with continually “putting Obama on the defensive” miss the point.The pundit caste has made a cliche of this notion of “putting the other guy on the defensive.” The problem with cliches, of course, is that people forget what they mean. Some of the commentary on last night’s debate exemplifies this tendency. This tactic means nothing by virtue of its deployment per se, but rather, as a means by which to gain certain advantages. If those advantages don’t accrue to you, then putting the other guy on the defensive means nothing.McCain’s attacks/challenges to Obama’s credibility were, one after another, disposed of quickly and tidily by Obama. Obama appeared calm the entire time, while McCain looked at all times to be straining to come up with novel forms of slander. Oftentimes, McCain’s soliloquies would stray far off the topic, and he appeared to be hogging microphone time, while Obama patiently waited, exchanging polite glances with Lehrer.Lastly: while Obama expressed, at appropriate times, his agreement with one or another premise of McCain’s answers, while interjecting his differences, McCain appeared at all times to be nervously guarding his grown against ANY possibility that Obama could utter something credible. This had the effect of making Obama appear all the more ‘presidential’, calm and reasonable. Obama was careful to mitigate McCain’s rhetorical excesses and over-the-top insinuations with fair-minded, calm rebuttals.The overall effect, in other words, is that McCain’s assiduousness in striving to “play offense” MADE HIM LOOK DEFENSIVE. Like an impetuous child, throwing a tantrum. The overly nasty and petty nature of many of McCain’s attacks became in and of themselves REAFFIRMATIONS of Obama’s credibility, savvy and strength of judgment and character.Think of it this way: poor McCain, in patting himself on his back for his own ‘maverickness’ and even his own service to his country, his endless repetitions, his inability EVER to cede ground to his opponent, looked like someone who, nervously and twitchily, is scared to death that you’re not going to believe him, and even that HE’s worried about losing the ability to believe HIMSELF.I think the media completely missed most of what matters about the debate; they are far too generous in their appraisal of McCain’s performance.In my view, the debate was nothing short of a triumph for Obama. He looked like a responsible adult. McCain looked like an inflexible old coot. I can’t imagine a single swing-voter being swayed by McCain’s performance. Obama, on the other hand, showed his stuff. He came across as competent, credible and–perhaps most importantly–honest.

  3. Tom Schreiner

    Correction: paragraph 4, line 4:the word “grown” should, of course, read “ground.”All best,Tom

  4. bostonmediawatch

    I watched the debate for about 45 mins and then I figured I’d seen enough style-wise and I figured if there were any big boners they’d get mentioned in the post-game, so I taped 2 hours of the post-game and watched it this morning and evidently, there weren’t any big boners.There were a bunch of things that conspired to effectively make this a win for Obama:McCain’s bid to play Superman in the economic fiasco failed miserably. The House Repubs had a grenade in their pocket on Friday, but amazingly, they were unable to find the pin until McCain was in the Cabinet Room with them at the White House. Movie analogy: Tex Cobb in “Raising Arizona.”The so-called “bailout” plan, in any form, is exceedingly unpopular among the Merkin People. Without any particular effort from either side, the public attitude is currently tilted towards the greed side of the equation rather than the fact that regulation is required to block the greed from having its effect. Dems know that it’s unpopular, and so they want to have a significant number of House Repugs vote for whatever plan end up being “the plan,” and it gives the Repugs a bit of maneuvering room.The panicky approach of Paulson was a non-starter for the Dems, and they rightfully said “no blank check”, but larded it up with just too many things that were anathema to House Repugs who are up for election.Now, whether or not McCain knew about the Repub grenade, he was an idiot to think that he would drop in and seal the deal with the con-con House Repubs. Country First, my ass, they said. My Ass first, they said.This thing can never be adequately explained to the Merkin People, because they are unable to understand the concept of 30, 40, 50 to 1 leverage. What happened is not that complicated at all, it’s about 5 layers of description on a whiteboard, but y’know, Dancing With The Stars is on…Back to the debate.ObamaDid a good job of shortening up his answers.By default. he looked directly into the camera more, which I’ve been bitching about for months. As long as he doesn’t frown and look like OJ, it’s a good thing.He did have a counterpunch for every punch. Pundits liked to replay the “I agree with John” snips, and they’re usable by McCain spinners, but they’re totally irreleveant if you’re watching the deabte.He does need some anecdotes.McCainMcCain refused to look at Obama, this appears to be a big thing among the pundits and they explain it in a number of different ways, but it was obvious, and it does not play well.His repeated use of “You just don’t understand” is effective with the base, but not with true undecideds.McCain performed pretty well for 72 and trying to be Economic Superman. He didn’t seriously gaffe.His line about “what do you do when you’re sitting across the table from Ahmadinejad and he says he’s going to exterminate Israel, say “No you’re not?” should have been gold.Leaving aside that Obama should have answered, “John, when I’m sitting across the table from Ahmadinejad, he’s not going to dare to say that. Because I’m not going to conduct foreign policy by trotting out my press secretary to tell the world where the United States stands.”Inexplicably did not invoke 9/11, as far as I know. I can practically hear Rudy Giuliani rolling over in his grave.Where was I? Oh yeah, so besides the fact that Obama performed very well, one thing that helped him greatly was the fact that the audience was sworn to silence. So when McCain trotted out some of the sentimental stuff, or even tried his phony self-deprecating jokes, it was like “Tap tap, is this thing on?”Applause lines with no applause. Worse, self-deprecating lines and no one’s laughing.It is also incredible that on substance, all the McCain spinners had to use afterwards was that Obama “agreed” with McCain so many times, and had to try to explain away his cold demeanor.Molto panic in the McCain camp after this one, I’m sure.Joe, be on your best behavior Thursday, no drinkin’ before the game, and in that split-second where you think you shouldn’t go ahead and say it, don’t.Dems are up 9 points, have the ball on their own 35 with 5 mins to go and the Repugs have 3 timeouts left. Their big guy (foreign policy) just went out of the game.Once score puts it away, but don’t let ’em back in the game. Run the ball up the middle and make ’em use up their timeouts. Keep making first downs.And fuck the use of “Main Street.” McCain’ll probably resurrect the Bob Seger song next. Jesus fuckin’ Christ.

  5. Aaron Read

    I guess this proves how out of touch us elitists are with the zillions of boneheads out there. :-)I listened to the debate on my drive home and watched the last 20 minutes or so on the TV and was bored out of my mind. It was trading inanities for ninety minutes as far as I was concerned.(P.S. For the record, I am not an Obama supporter. However, I am most definitely a McCain detractor. Extrapolate from there.)If anything, the frequent mutterings of “That’s not true” by Obama made him sound a little weak to me. But otherwise it was a yawner.Anyways, I find myself surprised by these polls and media reports that say Obama did “markedly better” than McCain. And I find myself wondering if this is just my own inability to put myself into Joe Average’s shoes, or if it’s the media being so desperate for a story that they’re exaggerating minor points into major ones for the sake of a headline.

  6. Doug Shugarts

    I am not a McCain supporter, but I thought he demonstrated that he is not as enfeebled by age as many of his critics suggest.All said, a tie.Doug Shugarts

  7. Ani

    aaron read,I cringed at the “That’s not true” remarks, I agree that they seemed to me to make Obama look weak — I think I wanted Obama to wait til McCain had finished and then haul off and say, “Now, John, look me in the eye, I’m talking to you: what you’re saying is just not true, now cut it out” — but I then reminded myself that Obama got where he is because he’s good at this stuff, and I’m no presidential nominee. Maybe his approach has its merits. I think when I see someone showing vulnerability I wonder how an opponent will react. But I also know that escalating things can be a mistake, too.

  8. Mike F

    I just got around to reading your piece now, Dan. Probably you’re at the mercy of the Guardian as to what’s put up online, but I thought I’d mention that your piece has Felzenberg writing that McCain towered over McCain.As for the debate, I too thought McCain did well and thought Obama wasn’t aggressive enough. But for a general audience that doesn’t follow the race closely, extensively arguing facts is probably a lost cause. Also, I think being perceived as the more affable candidate can make an impression. It might not mean much to me, but I’d bet Barack and Michelle Obama walking across the stage to greet John and Cindy McCain after the debate (as opposed to vice-versa) registered with a lot of viewers. I think people like a candidate who talks tough, but not in this setting, where they’re face to face and it can make things feel uncomfortable (and uncomfortable to watch.)

  9. Dan Kennedy

    Mike: I’ll bet Felzenberg wrote that — I tend to copy and paste quotes so I don’t mistype anything. It’s been corrected now at National Review. Unfortunately, my editor at the Guardian didn’t catch it in my copy. Not that that’s his job — my fault completely. Thanks.

  10. Fred Fury

    Congratulations on jumping on the media bandwagon, Mr. Kennedy. You rightly assert that the pundits agreed that McCain was condescending and failed to make eye contact. Yet in real time, in your live-blog, you apparently didn’t notice this. You and your fellow horde of commentators seem to be happiest when you are all able to say the same thing, and to magically convince yourselves that you came to these conclusions BEFORE you read each other and instantly subscribed to the groupthink. C’mon, Media Nation, you’re better than that.

  11. Dan Kennedy

    Fred Flintstone: Here’s what I wrote in the Guardian:Perhaps because I’m not a visual person, I thought last night’s debate was essentially a tie. Both Barack Obama and John McCain came across as knowledgeable and substantive – a refreshing contrast to George Bush’s bumbling performances of 2000 and 2004.But much of the morning-after media reaction is focusing on the visuals and the atmospherics. Obama, calm and cool, presented himself well. McCain, grumpy and lumpy, sneering and condescending, refusing even to look at his opponent, did not. And Obama, 2008’s Kennedy, will benefit.Now please, tell me, how am I claiming to have noticed McCain’s condescension during the debate when I’m quite explicitly telling readers that I didn’t notice?

  12. Fred Fury

    (And speaking of sneering and condescension….)Actually, you DON’T say explicitly in the Guardian that you did not notice the McCain condescension. (Not in your highlighted section, nor anywhere else in the piece. You do not mention condescension or sneering at all in the piece; perhaps the word you’re looking for is “implicitly.”)Perhaps I overstate to say that YOU convinced yourself that you noticed the condescension the first time around, although many others certainly have.BUT, the very headline of your piece is, McCain’s Style Undermines Substance which suggests to me that you in fact may believe that McCain’s Style Undermines Substance. Nothing in the Guardian column suggests that you disagree with this conclusion (and the sub-hed invokes some mysterious undecideds that seem to have been conjured from this air.) Then you go on to say, Obama, calm and cool, presented himself well. McCain, grumpy and lumpy, sneering and condescending, refusing even to look at his opponent, did not. Is this others’ opinions, or yours? You make no attempt to counter this observation and in fact seem to endorse it, even though you didn’t notice it in real-time. If you think the media gaggle is wrong, say so. If the media gaggle is right, explain how it is you missed such an obvious and far-reaching phenomenon (It doesn’t sit well with undecided voters, you assert!) beyond the explanation of “I’m not a visual person.” You’re a freaking professor of journalism, a field that for years has obsessed with the visual and the trivial (cf. Givhan, Robin; and Dowd, Maureen). You’d think you’d have an eye out for the triviality (Gore’s sigh, etc.) that your colleagues will obsess upon the next day.You mentioned NOTHING about this in real-time, and then asserted it as God’s truth a day or so later. Something changed your mind in the meantime. That’s what’s up.And don’t be so goddam sensitive.(By the way, I didn’t watch it at all because the sign and sound of McCain makes me throw up, so I rely on the geniuses of the media to tell me what happened. Thanks to you and your colleagues, I know McCain was sneering and condescending. But I only learned about it the day AFTER the debate after everyone got their story straight.)Cheers. And I love your column (the blog, not the Guardian items), but if the media consensus is so different than your own observations, someone’s full of it.

  13. Dan Kennedy

    Mr. Flintstone: Columnists don’t write the headlines.

  14. Fred Fury

    You’re right. They don’t. (Although we eds love it when writers at least offer suggestions for headlines) And thus we frequently see a disconnect between the hed and and body. This is very unfortunate as far more people read the headline than the actual story, in every single case. The Guardian should have written a better hed. But maybe in their quick read of your column, they reached the same conclusion I did – that you, and not just other media, believed and were asserting as fact the condescension thing. If your own editors miss your point, surely readers will as well.As you know, it’s tricky to discuss and criticize the arguments of others while being clear that they are not your own arguments. I’m just a bit hot these days about bandwagon, consensus journalism and the stupid tales that get spun (even when the tales support my side.)One final note: No need to address me as Mr. Flintstone. This is an insult to Hanna-Barbera, Wilma, Pebbles and Dino, great Bedrockians all who have done nothing to be drawn into this trivial debate.I look forward to your continued analysis.

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