No more debates? Following Tuesday’s fiasco, some call for just that.

Not an image from Tuesday night’s Biden-Trump debate.

Previously published at GBH News.

This morning, the day after what was surely the worst presidential debate in our unhappy nation’s history, I have the task of making sense of it through the eyes of the media. What can I say? We all saw what we saw, and if you didn’t see it, count yourself among the fortunate.

I could quote commentary after commentary calling out President Donald Trump for his unhinged performance, in which he lied promiscuously and constantly shouted over former Vice President Joe Biden and moderator Chris Wallace.

But I doubt anyone is going to top the presidential historian Jon Meacham, a Biden supporter, who tweeted during the close minutes that “the incumbent’s behavior this evening is the lowest moment in the history of the presidency since Andrew Johnson’s racist state papers.”

Meacham appeared to be referring specifically to Trump’s refusal to denounce white supremacists. But it could be applied just as accurately to the entire hour-and-a-half fiasco.

The most consistent theme that’s emerged following the debate is that we shouldn’t have any more. On CNN, Wolf Blitzer raised that possibility as soon as it ended, as did former Democratic strategist James Carville on MSNBC.

“I never thought I’d say this, but Vice President Biden is going to have to think long and hard whether they want to put the country through this again,” said Carville, according to an account at the pro-Trump website Breitbart. “This accomplished nothing for Trump, and I think Biden did fine. But it was not a very good night for American democracy at all.”

Blitzer and Carville were far from alone. At The Bulwark, Never Trump conservative William Kristol called Trump’s behavior a “disgrace” and “sickening,”and wrote that Biden “should not put the nation through another ordeal like that.” Added liberal columnist Frank Bruni of The New York Times, “I wasn’t in the crowd of people who believed Joe Biden shouldn’t deign to debate President Trump, but put me in the crowd that believes he shouldn’t debate him again.”

Will the remaining debates be canceled? It seems unlikely. The Biden campaign put out the word Tuesday night that the former vice president would stick to the schedule. And one of the headlines at the aforementioned Breitbart this morning was “Media Push Biden to Cancel Future Debates,” an indication of the pounding Biden would take if he says he’s had enough.

Still, the Commission on Presidential Debates needs to take a hard look at what, if anything, can be done to put the next encounter back on track — or if it’s even possible.

A few other observations:

• Wallace, the Fox News anchor who only recently earned praise for a tough interview with Trump, got called out on multiple fronts for failing to keep the proceedings under control. For instance, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote, “Chris Wallace was utterly disgraceful as a moderator, constantly letting Trump interrupt Biden and allowing him to spout gross and anti-democratic lies about the legitimacy of the election.”

Of course, we wouldn’t want to ignore the alternative-reality crowd. Noted Mar-a-Lago Club member Howie Carr, writing at the currently homeless Boston Herald, accused Wallace of teaming up with Biden. “Two on one is Democrat fun,” Carr sneered, “and that’s what the president was up against last night.”

I’m usually pretty hard on moderators, but I thought Wallace did as well as anyone could given that Trump was completely out of control. Wallace was perhaps a bit too passive early on, but, starting about halfway through, he repeatedly called out Trump for his abusive behavior. You have to ask yourself: What could Wallace have done other than walk off?

• Biden’s performance came in for some criticism as well, and not just from the Trumpist right. The Boston Globe’s James Pindell gave Biden a “C” (and Trump a well-deserved “F”), writing, “Biden wasn’t able to instill confidence that he is up for the job…. While he didn’t get rattled, the former vice president often struggled to find his own lines throughout the debate. He seemed tired and unsure what to do. He was not crisp.”

At The Atlantic, David A. Graham, a harsh Trump critic, was nevertheless underwhelmed with the former vice president, writing that “tonight saw the return of the Biden who stumbled his way through debates in the Democratic primaries. Answers took left turns, then right turns, then U-turns, feinting in several directions and ending nowhere.”

But given that Biden constantly had to talk over Trump and keep his train of thought, it seemed to me that he had a pretty good debate. So I’m with Josh Marshall of the liberal website Talking Points Memo, who put it this way: “Biden did fine. Not great. But fine. I’d say he had a B performance with some B+ or even A- minus moments. But for him that’s fine. He’s ahead. He’s not running as best debater. He’s not running as most dynamic figure. He’s not competing for most unstable affect. He’s running as the guy who will end the nightmare. If that’s the goal he turned in just the right performance.”

Besides, Biden managed to get off the line of the night: “Will you shut up, man? This is so unpresidential.”

• Finally, we shouldn’t forget that debates don’t matter. Polls showed that viewers thought Hillary Clinton won all three of her debates against Trump four year ago, and that John Kerry bested George W. Bush in 2004. CBS News reported that its snap poll of Tuesday’s proceedings gave the edge to Biden, 48% to 41%, which seems to be nothing more than a reflection of his and Trump’s standings in national polls.

And in certain far reaches of Trumpland, the president did just fine. At the Washington Examiner, Rob Crilly quoted several pro-Trump observers and ended with this: “During the event, he may have lacked Biden’s crafted zingers, but he knew exactly what he wanted to say.” The Wall Street Journal editorial page called the debate a “depressing spectacle,” but called out Biden as much as Trump. At least Michael Goodwin of the New York Post — like the Journal, a Murdoch property — was honest enough to admit that Trump’s “boorish” behavior undermined his cause.

We witnessed something truly awful Tuesday night, and yet little has changed.

“Much like the Trump presidency, it was a national embarrassment,” wrote Boston Globe columnist Renée Graham. Yes, and we have two more presidential debates to go, plus a vice presidential debate next week.

The fundamental dynamic remains intact. Biden has led consistently since January. Trump supporters support Trump, which means he’s going to make it close and create post-election chaos if it appears that he has lost.

God help us all.

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What would Northeastern journalism students ask the candidates?

I asked students in my Ethics and Issues class this morning to come up with questions for the candidates in five broad areas at tonight’s first presidential debate. Because my students are wicked smart, I thought I’d share them with you.

  • Ethics: What do you think the role of executive power and executive actions should be, and how would you utilize them as president?
  • COVID: After failed diagnoses, treatments and political drama, how are you going to get Americans to trust science again? Is that important?
  • Black Lives Matter: Do you have plans to reform the training and educational requirements used in vetting and hiring for law enforcement? Would your plans contribute to combating institutional systemic racism?
  • The economy: Besides re-opening, what economic issues are most important for your recovery plans?
  • Climate change: What is your plan for the next four years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2040?

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Nestor Ramos, recently promoted at the Globe, leaves for The New York Times

Nestor Ramos (via The New York Times)

Nestor Ramos, only recently promoted to the masthead at The Boston Globe, is leaving to become an assistant editor on The New York Times’ metro desk. He’ll begin next month, according to a press release from the Times.

In late August, Ramos was named the Globe’s senior assistant managing editor for local news. Although his job — city editor — remained essentially the same, the enhanced title made him the first Latino to be named to the news-side masthead. Editor Brian McGrory referred to the promotion as “a straight-up acknowledgement of his enormous impact on the room and our coverage.”

On Friday, in an email to the staff sent along by a trusted source, McGrory sounded unhappy over the steady stream of Globe reporters and editors who’ve been lured to the Times. While congratulating Ramos and calling his departure a “sizable loss,” McGrory went on to note that “the pattern of the Times grabbing our journalists is getting old, something I just pointed out to the good people of the Times. I choose to take it as a compliment and hope you do as well.”

It’s worth noting that Carolyn Ryan, herself a former Globe metro editor, is in charge of recruitment at the Times.

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Boston’s looming mayoral campaign illustrates the value of ranked-choice voting

Two smart progressive women who serve on the Boston City Council will challenge Mayor Marty Walsh next year, assuming Walsh seeks re-election. I’m not sure I can remember a time that candidates who are the caliber of Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell have taken on an incumbent.

Their candidacies are yet another reason that you should vote “yes” this fall on Question 2, which would create a system of ranked-choice voting. I’m not exactly making an intuitive argument — RCV, which I wrote about recently for GBH News, wouldn’t apply to the Boston mayoral race. But hear me out.

If municipal elections in Massachusetts were partisan, then Walsh, Wu and Campbell would all run in a Democratic primary, with the winner facing a Republican in the fall. Presumably it would help Walsh enormously to have Wu and Campbell split the anti-Walsh vote.

But that’s not how it works. All three (and perhaps others) will run in a preliminary election, and the top two finishers will face off in November. You could accomplish the same thing with RCV. The point is that Wu and Campbell supporters will be able to vote for their favorite knowing that Walsh will have to face one of them (or someone else depending on who else runs) in a head-to-head contest.

Walsh has been a popular mayor, so I’m certainly not predicting his defeat. But whoever wins will need to get more than 50% of the vote in a one-on-one election. That’s what democracy looks like.

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Contrary to James Fallows’ lament, political coverage really is better this time

James Fallows. Photo (cc) 2019 by the Brookings Institution.

Previously published at GBH News.

Strictly speaking, there is nothing actually wrong in James Fallows’ 4,000-word takedown of the political press, which has been the talk of liberal Twitter since it was published by The Atlantic earlier this month.

The sins he documents are real: reflexively balancing coverage between “both sides,” even when one side lies repeatedly; dwelling on the horse-race aspects of the contest; and wallowing in the spectacle, as we did in 2016, when then-candidate Donald Trump’s unhinged rallies proved to be far more entertaining than anything Hillary Clinton could offer.

But to argue, as Fallows does, that we’re doing it all over again, and that Joe Biden is falling victim to the same irresponsible coverage that befell Clinton four years ago, is to misunderstand the moment. To put a new twist on an old phrase, Fallows is missing the trees for the forest. His grasp of the big picture is solid. What he doesn’t see is that the 2020 campaign is being covered very differently compared to 2016.

“Many of our most influential editors and reporters are acting as if the rules that prevailed under previous American presidents are still in effect,” Fallows writes. “But this president is different; the rules are different; and if it doesn’t adapt, fast, the press will stand as yet another institution that failed in a moment of crucial pressure.”

So far, so good. But his contention that we’re dealing with a “Groundhog Day” universe, in which the campaign is playing out just like it did in 2016, doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. It’s no exaggeration to say that, four years ago, large segments of the political press had hated the Clintons for the previous quarter century. Hillary Clinton had to deal with her husband’s legacy, sexism, the bogus email story and the exaggerated Benghazi aftermath.

Biden surely has enemies, but they are fewer in number and softer of voice. Of course, he’s also campaigning in the midst of the worst pandemic since 1918-’19, so he hasn’t been scrutinized in quite as up-close-and-personal a manner as he otherwise would have been. Still, there is every reason to think that the vitriol directed toward Hillary Clinton was unique — that is, uniquely intense, uniquely awful and uniquely unfair.

Rather than deal with Fallows’ critique point by point, I want to bring up three stories that he doesn’t mention — the dogs that didn’t bark. They’re important because they demonstrate that it’s really not Groundhog Day. Any one of these stories would have been covered relentlessly four years ago regardless of their merits, and could have done great damage to the Biden campaign if given that kind of oxygen. Instead, all three have been relegated to the background. Yes, they could re-emerge, possibly at the debates. But the campaign will be over in a few weeks, and early voting has already begun.

• The Tara Reade story. Remember her? She was the former Senate staff member who stepped forward last spring and claimed that, years ago, Biden had pinned her to a wall and sexually assaulted her in the corridor of a Capitol Hill office building. The claim was shocking and seemed contrary to what we knew about Biden. But, at least at first, the media did not dismiss her charges. How could they? She was there, we weren’t, and she deserved to have a chance to tell her story.

Soon, though, Reade’s narrative unraveled. The two big blows came when the “PBS NewsHour,” in an exhaustively detailed report, found no evidence that Biden had ever been accused of sexual assault by anyone other than Reade — and that the logistics of the assault as she described them were literally impossible. Simultaneously, Politico reported that Reade had spent much of her adult life lying and cheating people out of money, and had never been heard to say anything negative about Biden.

That should have been the end of it — and, against all odds, it was, though in earlier campaign cycles it might have kept right on spinning. I do think the media made a mistake in not continuing to pursue the story to find out who, if anyone, was paying Reade. Still, it was a rare instance of a scandal being debunked and staying debunked.

• The Hunter Biden story. Who would have imagined that a salacious Rudy Giuliani-fueled tale of corrupt intrigue in Ukraine would have faded away? But it did, and despite occasional squeaks from the Trumpist right, it has remained on the fringes.

In case you’ve forgotten, Joe Biden’s son Hunter was wildly overpaid to serve on the board of a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma. Joe Biden, as vice president, pressured the Ukrainian government to remove the prosecutor general who had been investigating Burisma. That sounds pretty bad. But it turned out the prosecutor general was himself a corrupt hack, and Joe Biden had merely been acting at the behest of the entire international community.

There was more to it than that, but the bottom line is that there was no scandal. The media got off to a bad start, but soon realized they were being led down a rat hole and backed off. The last time I heard it mentioned was at the Republican National Convention, when former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi brought it up rather ineffectually.

• The dementia story. Now here’s one that the more mindless elements of the media really could have sunk their teeth into. All you have to do is remember the endless speculation after Hillary Clinton stumbled out of a car and then was diagnosed with pneumonia to understand how hard it is for the press to resist a story about a supposed medical cover-up.

In Biden’s case, the accusation coming out of the fever swamps is that Biden is suffering from dementia and that he is the mere puppet of the Democratic left, personified by his running mate, Kamala Harris, notwithstanding the fact that she’s never been a favorite of the left. The Trumpist right has been touting a Zogby poll that found more than half of respondents supposedly believe Biden “is in the early stages of dementia.”

For the most part, though, the media have ignored this foolishness. They see what everyone sees — that, at 77, Biden comes across as less energetic than he used to, but with no loss of mental acuity. The gaffes roll right off him; after all, he has been putting his foot in his mouth for his entire career. Besides, his opponent is Trump, who’s only a few years younger and can’t put together a coherent sentence.

“It’s rarely the new issues that most bedevil us,” Fallows writes. “It’s the same old problems and failures and blind spots and biases, again and again and again.” He’s right. But Biden enjoys significant advantages in terms of media coverage compared to Clinton four years ago. Perhaps the biggest of those advantages is one I haven’t even mentioned: The press now understands that Trump can win, and he’s turned out to be an even scarier threat to democracy than he appeared to be in 2016.

The final few weeks of the campaign are going to be incredibly ugly, especially now that the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the politics of a vacant Supreme Court seat have been added to the mix. But Biden, unlike Hillary Clinton, is well-liked and has benefited from the media’s refusal thus far to wallow in phony scandals.

Political coverage of presidential campaigns can be and often is a catastrophe. This time around, though, it really is better.

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Album #5: McCoy Tyner, ‘Enlightenment’

I knew right away what I wanted to play Sunday morning as I thought about the life and death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. McCoy Tyner’s “Enlightenment” is one of three spiritually intense albums on this list, and it’s the one that speaks most directly to me. Recorded live at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 1973, it consists of four great musicians addressing the Almighty in as direct a way as you are likely to hear in this plane of existence.

Tyner, who died earlier this year, was one of the leading pianists of the 20th century. He was, among other things, a key player in John Coltrane’s classic quartet — the one that recorded “A Love Supreme” in 1964. I imagine Tyner saw “Enlightenment” as his own answer to “A Love Supreme” — and, truth be told, he doesn’t quite manage to equal Trane’s towering accomplishment. Who has? But I’m going with Tyner because I was introduced to “Enlightenment” when I was a teenager, and thus it resonates with me in a way that goes beyond “A Love Supreme.”

How to describe “Enlightenment”? It’s impossible, really. The bare-bones rundown is that the album comprises the three-part “Enlightenment Suite” plus three additional tracks — “Presence,” “Nebula” and “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit.” Tyner is all intensity and dense chords. The other musicians, saxophonist Azar Lawrence, bassist Joony Booth and drummer Alphonse Mouzon, are collaborators rather than accompanists — full participants in a common purpose.

Booth’s solo between “Nebula” and “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit” is astonishing. At the beginning, he sounds like he’s groping for something that’s eluding him. But then he finds it, and what he plays is the closest to singing that you’ll ever hear on an upright bass. Much of the concert is available on YouTube; here are parts one and two. They are well worth watching to get an idea of the level of concentration and sheer physical effort that the band brought to bear.

(By the way, the other spiritually focused albums on the list are Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks,” No. 12, and Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace,” No. 22.)

I had the good fortune of seeing Tyner perform twice in the 1970s, at Paul’s Mall and the Paradise. He was a great soul whom we’ll all miss, but he left a legacy that will endure. I know that Justice Ginsburg’s tastes tended toward opera. But I’m sure she would recognize the brilliance and the connection to the infinite that Tyner, Lawrence, Booth and Mouzon made in Switzerland one day 47 years ago.

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Bruce Freeman Rail Trail

Eighteen-mile ride this afternoon along the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail, from Acton to Chelmsford and back. I didn’t start taking pictures until the return trip, so this is north to south.

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Willowdale State Forest

I took a six-mile hike in Willowdale State Forest in Topsfield on Saturday. And for th first time in ages, I managed to avoid getting off the trail in the confusing northwest section. Beautiful day for a hike!

What’s next following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg meets President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Photo in the public domain.

On this day of national mourning, do yourself a favor and read Linda Greenhouse’s magnificent obituary of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in The New York Times. The accompanying video is outstanding as well.

So where do we go from here? During the Democratic primary campaign, Pete Buttigieg called for expanding the size of the Supreme Court as retribution for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal even to consider Judge Merrick Garland, President Obama’s choice to replace the late Antonin Scalia.

Buttigieg’s idea gained no traction then. But Joe Biden and the Democratic congressional leadership should go to McConnell immediately and make it clear that expanding the size of the Supreme Court from nine to 11 is exactly what they’ll do if he moves ahead with his grotesquely hypocritical plan to fill Ginsburg’s seat before Jan. 3, when the next Congress is sworn in.

Of course, they will then have to go out and win the White House and Senate and hold onto the House. Otherwise, even if McConnell agrees, he’ll turn around and ram through President Trump’s choice during the lame-duck session.

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The Globe’s partnership with Biogen raises potential ethical concerns

The Boston Globe has announced a partnership with Biogen in which the company’s 4,000 Massachusetts-based employees will receive digital subscriptions. “As part of the deal,” writes Globe reporter Jon Chesto, “the Globe will host two town-hall style discussions around topics of Biogen’s choosing.” In return, the Globe will be paid somewhere in range of six figures.

State House News Service’s MASSter List estimates the deal at $800,000 and warns that it is “rife with conflicts-of-interest concerns.” Indeed it is. I’m not especially worried that the Globe’s coverage of Biogen will turn squishy as a result of the deal, because it’s not really any different from the pressures news organizations are under to go easy on an advertiser — or, in the case of a nonprofit, a funder.

It all comes down to those town halls. How involved will the Globe newsroom be? Will the Globe’s promotion of those town halls cross any ethical lines?

Good for the Globe for finding another revenue stream, especially at a time when COVID is wiping out what was left of already-shrinking ad revenues. Nevertheless, this is worth keeping an eye on.

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