Last night’s debate news (or part of it) this morning — another problem for what’s left of newspapers

OK, so I’m behind the curve today. I got home from final dress rehearsal last night at about 11:30, heated up some dinner, watched a few minutes of both the beginning and the end of the debate (having heard a BBC assessment of it on the radio on the drive home) then watched some of the PBS commentary after the debate, then hit the sack.

But I’m not as far behind the curve as most daily newspapers were in today’s print editions.

Slate calls our attention to today’s front pages (all taken from the Newseum, where you can see plenty of others), which have a sameness about them: They pretty much all say the same thing in their headlines, and most run photos of the same moment, with the candidates’ fingers pointed at each other. Sure, you might find some “analysis” in there somewhere, and the more enterprising (and better-staffed) opinion pages will have some sketchy opinions expressed. As Slate’s Josh Voorhees writes:

As we explained late last night, the insta-polls and the pundits saw a tight contest on the Long Island stage on Tuesday, but one that was won narrowly by President Obama. Given the lack of a clear-cut win, however, it should come as little surprise that a quick scan of the morning’s front pages show the nation’s headline writers and art teams focused on the on-stage clash and largely left the who-won question to the domain of the cable news talking heads (as most papers had likewise done following the previous two debates).

Once, this sameness, this lack of personality or individualized expression was the glory of newspapers. If 10 different journalists from 10 different papers covered the same event, they would all write pretty much the same thing. It was a measure of their professionalism, and the self-effacement that news writing demanded of them. It was about giving it to you straight, unadorned, plain, and God forbid there should be any hint of opinion in it. Who, what, where, when, maybe how, and, if you put an “Analysis” sig on it, why.

The monotony of it didn’t strike the reading public because unless they lived near an urban newsstand, most people only saw one daily newspaper.

But here’s the problem with that today: What newspapers put in those lede headlines today, and what they conveyed in those pictures, was all old news by the time I was driving home from rehearsal last night.

I hadn’t driven more than a few blocks when I knew the conventional wisdom on what had happened. It went something like this: Obama did all the things he failed to do in the first debate, particularly having a strong finish. Romney did fine, although was maybe not quite as sharp as in the first debate. If you’re declaring a winner, it’s Obama, although I didn’t get the sense that he dominated in this debate the way Romney did in the first one, so if you’re going on cumulative totals, Romney’s probably still ahead in this debate series. How this affects the polls remains to be seen.

I had even heard about “binders full of women,” but I was mostly confused by that.

In the post-debate analysis I watched after I got home, I heard David Brooks and Mark Shields give their assessments. Brooks said Obama won because he was able to exploit Romney’s biggest weakness better than Romney was able to press Obama on his biggest weakness. He said Romney’s biggest weakness is that his numbers don’t add up, and Obama’s problem is that he never provides a vision of what the next four years will be like if he is re-elected. Shields said it might surprise everyone, but he agreed with Brooks on all those points.

Since then, on the radio this morning, I’ve heard that “Obama hasn’t sketched a vision going forward” meme several more times.

I was also interested in what a young woman (didn’t catch her name) who analyses Twitter during debates for PBS had to say. I didn’t get as much of an overview of the Twitter take as I wanted because she decided to zero in on the reactions of women. But I’ve found her assessments interesting in the past: What was trending? What were the memes people were obsessing over? What caught on? I’ve become more and more interested in the instant reactions of Tweeters in the aggregate during events like this. It has something to do with the wisdom of crowds. It’s like having sensors attached to the brains of millions of highly engaged, clever voters — which is what the most-followed people on Twitter tend to be.

And I felt left out because I wasn’t on Twitter myself during the debate. Increasingly, that’s where I like to be during these kinds of real-time shared events, sifting through the flood of reaction as it washes over me.

And in a Twitter world, seeing these front pages feels like reading ancient history. No, it’s worse than that. Historians look at the whole of a thing after it’s over and draw conclusions. There’s a wholeness to historical accounts. These reports — and I’m just reacting to the headlines, mind you — don’t do that. They give only the most noncommital account, essentially just telling you that the candidates came together and vied against one another, and there the account ends. The Des Moines Register headline (“Stakes higher in 2nd face-off”) could have been, and possibly was, written before the debate started. (And pre-Gannett, that was one of the best papers in the country for political coverage.)

And I was already so far beyond that, without even trying hard to be, last night — without even having seen the debate.

I’m not saying these papers aren’t doing their jobs well. What I’m saying is that the job they’re doing, within two kinds of constraints — the convention of not drawing conclusions in a news account, and the severe time problem of the debate ending as they have to get those pages to the press room (depending on the edition we’re talking about, a lot of editions went to bed BEFORE that) — fails to satisfy in a Twitter world.

Again, there might be all kinds of good stuff in the stories, but the presentation — the quick impression that a glance at the front page provides — is deeply lacking. It makes you not want to read more deeply. It causes me to want to go read those papers’ websites today, and see what good stuff didn’t make it into the paper. (And the better papers will have something for me when I go there.) Because the conversation has moved, by the time the paper hits your stoop, so very far beyond what’s in those headlines.

56 thoughts on “Last night’s debate news (or part of it) this morning — another problem for what’s left of newspapers

  1. Kathryn Fenner

    The binders full of women potentially to be hired for Cabinet posts is Romney’s tin-eared response to the Lilly Ledbetter Act. Yeah, we equalize pay overall by hiring a few highly paid chicks, and it trickles down.

  2. Stanley Dubinsky

    I think that the first problem with this post lies in the oxymoron “debate news”. Our elections do not include actual “debates”, in any formal sense of the term. And it is certain that whatever it is that they do include (inaptly referred to as “debates”), do not generate anything that might be thought of as “news”, in any formal sense of the term.

  3. bud

    I’ll go ahead and beat SD II to the punch. There’s an awful lot of words to basically say all the papers gave essentially the same report. Nevertheless an ok analysis of the reporting aspect of the debate.

  4. Karen McLeod

    One headline I saw ran something like,”Viewers saw two alpha males in the fight of their lives.” Are these presidential candidates or baboons? At least the moderator kept reminding them of what the questions were, since both tended to spout campaign slogans rather than answer the questions.

  5. bud

    Before I get to who won the debate and why it’s worth noting my biggest takeaway from the debate. That is there is nowhere any hint of a liberal candidate running for president. This adds yet another piece of evidence to what I’ve been seeing in our politics for the last 20+ years. The Democratic party has clearly moved to the right. But because the GOP has moved to right even faster it appears the two parties are moving in opposite directions. But that is an illusion. A couple of examples:

    1. The tax debate focused on whether Romney’s plan would, in fact, result in higher taxes for the middle class while at the same time leaving the tax burden on the wealthy essentially the same. Obama countered with his plan to raise taxes only on the wealthy. But a truly liberal plan would advocate for higher taxes on everyone to fund a much more generous set of government programs to help with infrastructure, healthcare, job creation and social needs. Obama’s plan may be to the left of Romneys but it is hardly in keeping with the aggressive liberal policies of someone like the ailing George McGovern.

    2. But the really startling discussion involved energy. There was a complete lack of any desire on the part of either man to address environmental issues. None. In discussing his objections to the Keystone pipeline Obama could have mentioned his concerns for this pipeline running through sensitive aquifers. Or he could have mentioned the problems associated with coal and the resulting greenhouse gases. But no. It’s as if there is no concern for the environment.

    And there are other issues as well. But suffice it to say for a liberal like me I’m left to choose between a conservative and an extremist right-wing wacko. I suppose that’s an easy choice but I wish there was a third viable option.

  6. Brad

    Bud, I said a whole lot more there than “all the papers gave essentially the same report.”

    I could have squeezed maybe 100 words out of it, and still said what I said pretty well.

    But that would have taken more time. And I don’t take that kind of time anymore, now that I’m not paid to do so.

  7. Silence

    bud – A truly liberal candidate can’t run as a truly liberal candidate or govern as a truly liberal elected official – because they are so far outside of the way mainstream America thinks and so out of touch with most people’s belief system. That’s why they have to play center-right to get elected.
    1) Did George McGovern ever get elected president? No? I didn’t think so. Maybe that’s because people couldn’t support his lefty policies. Obama has to tiptoe the fine line between implementing lefty policies and getting re-elected.
    2) People care about energy prices more than the environment – for better or worse. See the current situation of California switching early to “dirtier” winter fuel blends to push down the cost. That’s a good bellweather. I thought that Romney should have just come out and said that renewables aren’t economically viable, but he didn’t do that either. Both want to claim the “all of the above” energy policy.
    3) Neither candidate in this election is remotely conservative by any mainstream definition of the word. You have a fairly liberal New England & rust belt Republican on one hand, and a Chicago Machine Democrat big government socialist who was raised in (Islamic) Indonesia and (liberal) Hawaii on the other.
    It’s not like we have a proper Texaas conservative or Libertarian to vote for, either. The system’s not designed to give us extremist candidates – probably with good reason.

  8. Silence

    While I’m at it:
    Why/How is Candy Crowley still on TV? I cannot think of any other obese ladies (or men either, for that matter) involved in the mainstream national media. Does she have the goods on her bosses at CNN, does she own the proverbial goat? Does she have some sort of union seniority? Why hasn’t she been replaced with a younger, sexier news reporter yet?

  9. Phillip

    Brad, I thought you were suspicious of the “wisdom of crowds” at least vis-a-vis direct democracy versus the system of a republic. But re Twitter, I had to flee watching the debate on TV because the vibe was so uncomfortable, so I listened from the next room, while switching windows between Andrew Sullivan’s live-blog and my Twitter account, and also Facebook. It was more enjoyable to take in that way, as if watching with a roomful of friends, not interrupting verbally so as to drown out what was being said by the candidates, but with various (sometimes) amusing comments nevertheless.

    Still, I agree with Stanley. The coverage of the debates is ludicrous; I heard a preview on NPR of all places that made the whole thing seem like the BCS in football, as if Obama had to somehow “make up” the margin of defeat in debate #1, as if the whole thing was somehow about concrete point totals or margin of victory, rather than the substance of their differences.

  10. Steven Davis II

    Did anyone else catch Crowley and Obama freak out when Romney said Fast and Furious? He must have been not listening when they explained the forbidden words not to use. He was ready to make a point and Crowley cut him off and went immediately to the next subject. Obama looked like he might need a 5 minute bathroom break to change his shorts.

    It was nice of Crowley to help the president out though when he would get stuck. And did Obama get the last word in on every topic? For a while there I thought Romney was debating what appeared to be a tag team… if Obama couldn’t answer Crowley would do it for him.

    I especially enjoyed the “unbiased” audience. Questions from a feminist, a gun control freak, an illegal alien, the college student… where was the white guy who owned a small business? Where was Joe the Plumber?

    Why don’t they use a moderator from… I don’t know, somewhere where they do college level debating instead of news reporters?

  11. Brad

    Oh, and of course, going back to my old-fashioned, pre-Vietnam, pre-abortion, pre-Identity Politics notions of the way things should be, consider that McGovern was a harbinger of the new kind of “liberal,” and THAT’S what the voters rejected.

    They were fine with JFK, and likely would have elected Bobby had he not been killed. And FDR before them.

    But yes, since about 1972, “liberals” as they are defined today tend not to win elections outside of the bluest corridors of the nation. Jimmy Carter ran against the liberals of his party (and they hated him for it), and Bill Clinton’s big selling point was that he was a Third Way pol.

  12. Steven Davis II

    Brad, you and Silence better prepare for the unGodly thrashing you’re about to receive from Kathryn. How dare you comment on how a woman looks!!!

  13. Steven Davis II

    I see Hillary has fallen on the sword for Obama over the Libya fiasco, the next debate on foreign policy could really be interesting.

  14. Brad

    Phillip, I absolutely do NOT trust direct democracy. Laws cannot be written by the entire society. And the idea of every complex issue being decided by the grotesquely oversimplified method of people choosing “yes” or “no” — with no possibility of improving the result through discussion, discernment, deliberation… that utterly appalls me.

    What I get, by sifting through Twitter, is a great variety of thoughts about a subject, with some rising higher and higher to the point of attracting more attention, and all that provides me with a sort of gestalten sense of what’s going on, and stimulating grist for my own thoughts.

    It’s like surfing. As you sit on your board, your mind processes a multitude of factors in the surface of the sea as you look for the right moment to start paddling. A very rewarding, even enlightening experience (surfers can get way mystical, dude).

    But not a basis for a system of government, any more than strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is.

  15. Brad

    I mean, if I went ’round saying I was an emperor, just because some moistened bint had reTweeted a scimitar at me, they’d put me away!

  16. Silence

    @ SDII – And I say BRING IT ON!

    Also, agreed that much of what I watched last night was a two-on-one debate. I’m not sure why the Republicans agree to debates that are moderated by partisan Democrats (PBS, CNN, PMSNBC, disabled black women writing books about one of the candidates, etc.)
    It was sort of like watching a tag-team wrestling match where one side gangs up on the other and beats him while preventing him from tagging out.
    Which is why I’m voting for Camacho in 2012.

  17. bud

    I suppose on balance Obama won the debate. He was poised, articulate in command of the facts and brought Romney to task for at least some of the utterly ridiculous nonsense he’s been spouting on the stump. But I’m not sure when you strip away all the style points the substance of the debate wasn’t very much different from the first debate. Take the fantasyland 20% tax cut proposal Romney continues to push. Obama countered that in the first debate but most of the pundits considered it too wonky. Romney again spouted off that discredited mess and again Obama countered. But this time apparently the punditry thought he did a less wonky and more effective job. I suppose.

    Given that the winner of these events tends to be the guy who is stylistically the best I would maintain they offer little in the way of providing useful information to the voter. It may be best to just read up on the fact checker websites and try to make a character assessment to reach a choice for POTUS.

  18. bud

    Silence the reason you can even mention the fact that we don’t have a truly libertarian candidate is because the country has moved so far to the right. A 21st century tea party libertarian would have been regarded as some sort of space alien in 1976. Heck Ronald Reagan’s policies would be far more liberal than Romneys. And Romney is generally regarded as the most moderate of the GOP candidates this year (with the possible exception of Mr. Huntsman).

  19. Brad

    Silence, I disagree with you on Romney not being a conservative. He is conservative, in an old-fashioned way.

    Actually, that’s not quite right. I think of John McCain and Lindsey Graham as conservatives of the old school. And Romney ran to the right of McCain four years ago.

    The various strange ways that “conservative” has been redefined are very unfortunate.

    But I’ll confess that I had a similar thought when I saw Candy Crowley. I was unfamiliar with her, as I don’t watch TV news. All I could think was that she must really, really REALLY be good at her job.

  20. Justin Young

    I think you are accurate that daily newspapers cannot effectively cover national news (particularly political news). With the internet ideas move quickly and sharper minds are already covering it on both sides and the internet has the ability to draw and aggregate ideas from a very wide base (and like you mention, retweet them if they are good). I remember within half an hour of the debate there was an entire blog devoted to photos of Romney making fun of his “women full of binders” quote.

    I think of social media of it as the most egalitarian and democratic form of editorial writing. HOWEVER, newspapers can, and excel at providing thoughtful LOCAL coverage. I think the differing fortunes of our local weekly, the Free Times (and it’s magazine style stories) compared that of our daily, The State are evidence of this. Outside of social media there isn’t as much competition for coverage and it is generally poorly followed. There is also a clear need for accurate reporting and investigative journalism. Hardly anyone outside of the news covers local news on issues that matter. I think the future of newspapers lies here.

  21. Jeff Morrell

    I am beginning to wonder about the shallowness of folks when they stoop to comments on ones appearance or physique rather than their substance. Mr. Ryan first and now Ms. Crowley. She has been with CNN since at least the late 80’s

  22. Kathryn Fenner

    Al Roker is none too slim even after his surgery, nor Whoopie Goldberg. Rush Windbag isn’t exactly svelte, though I think he isn’t on TV any more…..Tim Russert wasn’t trim, either.

  23. Brad

    Jeff, don’t wonder — be certain! Of course it’s shallow to notice someone’s personal appearance, but everyone does it, and that’s why people who present the news on the telly tend to be better looking than print journalists. Yours truly excepted, of course.

    I was just being honest in reaction to what Silence said. I didn’t want to notice, but I did. And I really did think she must be extra good at her job to look like that and still be on TV.

    But I wouldn’t know because I very rarely see TV news — especially not of the 24/7 cable TV variety. I used to see it sometimes when I was working out and somebody else had turned it on (that was in the little gym we had in the basement at the newspaper), or when I’m giving blood and can’t get away from it.

    Consequently, I was unfamiliar with this person. And when I saw her last night, I formed my first impression.

  24. Brad

    To continue Kathryn’s list, I think people are probably right when they say Chris Christie is WAY too big to run for president, and Mike Huckabee would have had to go back on his extreme weight-loss plan to run this year, which may have factored into his decision not to (although the other factor — the fact that he’s making lots of bucks on TV — would seem to belie the thesis here).

    We may be even less tolerant of corpulence in presidential candidates that in TV personalities. We want the commander in chief to be in shape.

    Grover Cleveland wouldn’t have had a chance today. Neither, sad to say, would James Madison. Too short.

  25. Mark Stewart

    Liberal is not leftist. Leftist is leftist.

    I wish everyone would glom onto another phrase to describe extensive social welfare programs, economic redistribution and all that stuff.

    Now infrastructure investment and education… that’s another thing altogether.

  26. Silence

    @Mark Stewart – How about “progressive” or “Socialist” since the two are synonyms.

    @ Kathryn – Al Roker slimmed down a lot but now he just looks creepy to me. Whoopi wasn’t fat when she got famous, but Roseanne was. Rush Limbaugh was on the radio – which is a perfectly acceptable place for fat or ugly people. The phrase “a face for radio” wasn’t invented for nothing. Kristie Alley has turned being fat into an industry – but she was hot way back when she got famous. Tim Russert was normal, I don’t think he was fat, but is now deceased – and somehow his son carries on his legacy on TV in one of the dumbest contract deals I’ve ever heard of. Huckabee lost like a zillion pounds – because when you are governor of Arkansas you can be fat – but when you want to be president it is not acceptable. Jakie Knotts is a bucket of lard, but that’s OK for his voting base. Brad’s right about Christie being too fat to be electable, but I think it would be even tougher for a fat chick to get elected.

    There’s a strong correlation between being rich – and thin. To be in politics it helps to be rich.

  27. Scout

    How could you forget Taft. The first fact I ever learned about him was he got stuck in a bathtub. This is knowledge that sticks with a person.

    Bud, I think Brad also kind of mentioned something about how old style news reporting feels stale in the context of twitter these days. (or that is gist I got at least)

    If Obama had environmental thoughts, would he say so? Or would it be a political calculation that expressing that sentiment might do him more harm than good, in spite, of what he really thinks. I don’t know the answer.

    But I kind of think it does matter to him.

  28. Mark Stewart


    I would like to reserve liberal and progressive for their 19th century meaning, as impossible as it may be to turn back the hands of slanderous assault from the reactionaries.

  29. bud

    It was sort of like watching a tag-team wrestling match where one side gangs up on the other and beats him while preventing him from tagging out.

    I’ve seen a lot of this “blame the moderator” game the last couple of days. The dems did the same thing (but to a lessor extent) after the first debate. Obama won this round. It wasn’t a knock out but Romney did himself a great disservice by stepping into the Benghazi incident without knowing the facts. Fox News talking points might work on the stump but when they are challenged by actual information they often fall apart. This debate will have about a 2-3 day news cycle unless the Republicans continue to whine. Round 3 could be decisive.

  30. Phillip

    @Silence: Crowley is a registered Republican. And missed in the radical-conservatives’ outrage over the fact that she called Romney on his obvious misstatement was the fact that she also said the Governor was right on a larger contextual point in the same exchange. But that wasn’t good enough, I guess…Crowley’s refusal to behave in the way Romney is used to having most women behave in his presence was, I suppose, the most irritating thing to radcons and to Romney himself.

  31. Silence

    Ooops, look who’s got the biggest pension, and also has their pension investments in the Cayman Islands and China? It’s Obama!

  32. bud

    It’s hard to know where to start with Romney. Is he the Etch-a-Sketch candidate? The man with the binders full of women? The dinner guest who ridicules the cookies? Or is he simply the guy who dismisses 47% of the country. He may win this thing yet. If so we’ll see who he really is. Do we really want to know?

  33. Brad

    Actually, the guy with binders full of women is Hugh Hefner.

    Amazingly, I got a press release from Playboy today making reference to the “binders” thing…

    The headline said: “News item? Binders full of Women? Playboy’s Election Special tells you how our sexual rights could really get Screwed.”

    Then the message said:
    Hi Brad:

    This is a case in which you should really read Playboy for the articles.

    Just in time for the latest Romney gaffe against women, Playboy’s November Election Special Issue features an eye opening report on how a Romney White House will really affect your sexual rights, and it’s no joke. We hope you will note this article and link to it, which is available complete at I look forward to your interest.

    Best regards,

    Shawna Seldon

  34. Bart

    Maybe I am totally inept at researching on the internet but nowhere could I find confirmation that Candy Crowley is a registered Republican. Based on what was available on Google, Ask, Yahoo, and every other search engine I could access, not one made reference to her political affiliation except the one when Alan Colmes (sp?) made a comment about a NYT article reporting she was a registered Republican.

    The closest thing to an association with a Republican is when she was one of the reporters assigned to the Dole campaign.

    If this is a fact, wouldn’t the media be all over it and using it against the Republicans complaints about how she conducted herself on Tuesday night?

    Phillip, if you have a direct link or facts to support her political affiliation, it would be appreciated if you could share. I truly would like to know.

  35. Kathryn Fenner

    The better joke was that Bill Clinton wanted these binders full of women.

    Another was that a binder full of women was only seventy seven cents, while a binder full of men was a dollar.

  36. bud

    This whole pension argument is a non-sequetor and not worthy of comment.

    The bottom line is that the economy is growing thanks to the policies of Obama. The unemployment rate is about where it was when Ronald Reagan was re-elected. If Romney is elected and he follows his stated tax and spending plans we will likely see a new recession. Why do I say that? We already have a great model to show us what would happen, the UK. They did pretty much what Romney advocates with all this austerity stuff and it has led to a double-dip recession. Compare that with our slow but steady growth the choice is pretty easy. Obama needs a second term.

  37. Steven Davis II

    bud – It’s a good thing I don’t drink anything when I read your comments, having things pass through my nose is typically unpleasant.

  38. bud

    SD II, unpleasant nose issue aside tell me where I’m wrong. The current unemploment rate is 7.8%. In October 1984 the rate stood at 7.4%. Not a whole lot of difference. The UK is undertaking a rather agressive policy of austerity and they are currently in the midst of a double-dip recession. That’s just a fact. Go check it out.

    Bottom line, if continue with Obama’s efforts to improve the economy we will likely continue with slow recovery. If Dems retake congress that recovery will likely quicken. If Romney wins economic stagnation is a certainty (unless he flip flops again). If the GOP controls all of congress we will end up with a UK-like double dip recession.

  39. Steven Davis II

    @bud – Do you really believe unemployment is at 7.8%? It’s amazing how suddenly the rates drop, but the same people who were out of work three months ago are still out of work today, yet the rate keeps dropping as we approach the election. How many of those people who are finding jobs are underemployed or have had their benefits expire and are no longer counted?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *