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Focus on substance, not style, in debates

Published Aug. 28, 2005

With President Bush and John Kerry set to debate on Thursday, American political journalism is proclaiming that the occasion is a crucial "test" for Kerry, and perhaps for Bush.

Indeed. But it's also a test for journalists. Phony documents and dishonest advertising have captured more attention than the facts of the candidates' competing claims about health care, or whether either has a plan _ a plausible plan _ for Iraq. And neither candidate's acceptance speech got widespread scrutiny.

But the debates provide critical moments when the public pays attention, when voters can measure one candidate against the other. And the press will, as it has done for years, do a creditable job of summarizing what is said, broadcasting the encounters live and even printing transcripts.

That will not be enough. For just as the 2000 National Annenberg Election Survey showed that voters learned what candidates stood for by watching debates, other research has shown that the public's views are influenced by what the news media emphasize.

The immediate judgments of television watchers can be changed by analysts citing a moment as a blunder or an overall presentation as strong or weak, commanding or uninformed, human or condescending. Often that impression has not even been conveyed by a seriously developed journalistic case, but by the trivia of television sound bites or reports in newspapers, like Al Gore's sighs or his flawed recollection of who accompanied him on a trip to a disaster in Texas. Or George H.W. Bush glancing at his watch.

The test for journalists is whether they can appreciate the importance of the event and help voters make sense of what is said, checking the accuracy of claims about the past and the present and the plausibility of what is claimed for the future. It won't do to say, "We covered that in August."

So if Kerry says he will solve the situation in Iraq by getting other countries to send more troops, the press needs to examine whether this could happen. And if Bush says he is going to solve the health insurance crisis with more community health care centers and fewer lawsuits, then journalists have to help voters determine whether Bush is offering cures or Band-Aids.

The press in recent years has spilled a lot more important ink over debate style than substance, with dutiful fact-checking relegated to inside pages, and descriptions of candidates' manners and costumes _ and above all, strategy _ accompanying the front-page accounts of what was actually said. It was not always that way. The accounts of the Kennedy-Nixon debates relied on accounts of what was said. So did the reporting of the 1976 debates. In that year and in 1980, articles pointing out major inaccuracies (like Gerald Ford's assertion that Eastern Europe was not under Soviet domination or Ronald Reagan's denial that he had ever said nuclear proliferation was not the United States' business) made the front pages.

Sometime in the 1980s political coverage began to confuse itself with drama criticism. The word "performance" started showing up frequently in debate analyses, and reporters started citing Samuel Beckett in their articles.

By 2000, front-page articles were saying that the language that mattered was "body language," while reporters' efforts to correct the debaters' claims on tax plans and patients' rights were buried inside the newspaper. And even those fact-checking efforts were constrained by an effort to balance one candidate's big mistakes against the other's minor errors. Strategy and color do belong in the report, but only after telling how Bush and Kerry propose to govern, and how much of what they say makes sense.

This is ultimately a challenge for newspapers because television isn't interested, not even the cable networks. Indeed, after watching the coverage of the swift boat story, it is easy to imagine an evenhanded cable exchange revolving around a political ad saying one candidate thought the Earth was round. Its sponsor would be challenged on cable by someone who said the Earth was flat. In an effort to seem fair to both sides, journalists can forget to be fair to the public.

Adam Clymer, the former Washington correspondent for the New York Times, is the political director of the National Annenberg Election Survey.

The New York Times