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Debate Disgrace | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Debate Disgrace

My new Think Again column is called: How Conservatives Treat Media Bias (Hint: Confusingly)

My Nation column is called “Shut Up About the Jews Already...” I don’t exactly plan to do that myself, since I’m writing a book about these very same Jews, but in the narrow sense that I mean it, I do mean it.

A time out for Music and Good Causes:

On October 16, Steve Van Zandt will be honored with the “Big Man of The Year Award,” given annually to honor the legacy of the late, great Clarence Clemons at the Little Kids Rock’s 10th anniversary Right to Rock Celebration, sponsored by the House of Marley and 1Love. They say they are expecting Elvis Costello, Dion, Tom Morello, Darlene Love, Southside Johnny, Kris Allen, Rubén Blades, Gary US Bonds, Michael Des Barres, Michael Johns, Jesse Malin, Jake Clemons, NYC Hit Squad (and who knows who else, ahem), to show up and play. The funds help Little Kids Rock bring the gift of music education to disadvantaged youth across the US. The event will be held on Tuesday, October 16 at the Manhattan Center’s Grand Ballroom and will run from 6:30pm until the music stops. For more information, go to littlekidsrock.org/tickets or call 973-746-8248.

Last week, I mentioned the Stand Up for Heroes benefit, for the Bob Woodruff Foundation raising funds for injured service members, veterans and their families, I forgot to mention that the event is being sponsored by the New York Comedy Festival, which has a whole list of other, funny-but-Bruceless events here. It’s on Nov. 8 at the Beacon and Jon Stewart, Max Weinberg, Ricki Gervais, etc. and last year’s show was terrific.

Finally, once again, if you were as disappointed as everyone else was with that pathetic performance of the presidnent’s the other night, I think I can guarantee that for “Jazz for Obama” at Symphony Space on October 9 (read all about it, here) will leave you in a much better mood. These guys don’t disappoint.

Alter-reviews

I’ve long admired the liberal, democratic political philosopher Alan Ryan as a kind of model public-minded scholar. I was on the money in my admiration, but wrong on the model part. Ryan is apparently beyond human and hence, not a model for the rest of us mere mortals.

I say this because I recently received On Politics: A History of Political Thought: From Herodotus to the Present in two volumes from Princeton University Press. The book spans, I kid you not, three thousand years, from the origins of political philosophy to the ancient Greeks to Machiavelli in the first book and from Hobbes to the present in the second. All together it’s 1152 pages and I really do intend to read every one of them, though I can’t tell you exactly when.

Ryan’s articles over the past forty years on the likes of Locke, Tocqueville, Mill, Dewey, Russell, Popper, Berlin and Rawls, have also been collected in another scary/impressive tome under the title, The Making of Modern Liberalism, also from Princeton, it’s a mere one volume and only 736 pages but if you’re interested in what Ryan’s interested in, you’ve surely read much of it already.

Also on the list of books to read when you’ve really got a great deal of time on your hands to think big thoughts is the collected four volumes by Anthony Kenny, under the title A New History of Western Philosophy, published by Oxford. It’s made up of four previous volumes of Kenny's History of Western Philosophy and tells the story of philosophy—the same one Ryan’s telling, as it happens, chronologically, focusing on knowledge and understanding; science; metaphysics; mind and soul; the nature and content of morality; political philosophy; and God. It cuts off, however, in 1975, so you may have to pick up the Ryan as well, even if you prefer Kenny’s approach.

There’s been some bad news about the Beach Boys in the past week. Various outlets have reported that Mike Love fired Brian Wilson, Al Jardine and David Marks from the current 50th reunion tour. That’s not exactly true. Love owns the Beach Boy trademark and he booked a follow-up tour for his own (insipid, lame, rip-off) version of the band during the reunion tour. So yes, he’s a bad guy, but not bad enough to “fire” Brian, et al.

If you want to relive the actual genius that made all this worth caring about then you’ve got plenty of opportunities. The easiest one is a new two-cd collection of 50 hits and songs that might have been hits, which is about as many songs as Brian and the band played at their great (second) show at the Beacon. It’s called (funnily enough) “Greatest Hits: 50 Big Ones” and goes all the way to to the excellent “That’s Why God Made The Radio” and a new single version of “Isn’t It Time.” The box also has an expanded booklet with liner notes by the renowned former Cornell Daily Sun arts editor and Don Rickles homey, David Wild, along with a few postcards.

More exciting to those of us who have been buying these various collections over the years are the twelve newly remastered studio albums, featuring mono and stereo mixes. They are: Surfin’ U.S.A.; Surfer Girl; Little Deuce Coupe;Shut Down, Volume 2; All Summer Long; The Beach Boys Today!; Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!); BeachBoys Party!; Pet Sounds; Smiley Smile; Sunflower (stereo mix only); and Surf’s Up (stereo mix only).

Also kinda interesting is a nicely packaged 25th anniversary issue of R.E.M’s Document, together with a1987 concert from the band’s “Work” tour. Excellent audio, excellent performance, nice box….Not a bad album, either, though not one of their absolute best.

Now here’s Reed:

Biggest Loser of the Debate? Journalism
by Reed Richardson
If what happened at the debate in Denver reflected the “gold standard” of debate moderation, then it’s clear our establishment media is in dire need of a Keynesian revolution. Even if Jim Lehrer’s services didn’t cost the Commission on Presidential Debates one red cent, they still didn’t get their money’s worth. For 90 minutes, I struggled to understand what role Lehrer was trying to play in the proceedings; his detached, ineffectual behavior all that more strange since, just the day before he had this to say about debate moderation to the Washington Post:

“The greatest fear of a moderator is that he or she will miss something,” [Lehrer] said Tuesday as final technical adjustments were being made before Wednesday’s event at the University of Denver. “If the candidate says it, and you let it go by, you have a hard time getting them back to clarify or explain. The fear of it is what makes me prepare as hard as I do.”

Now, compare that bold pre-game pronouncement to the almost pathologically passive, glorified timekeeper pose Lehrer struck—and still failed at mightily(!)—at the debate, perhaps best exemplified by this toothless exchange with Romney:

LEHRER: All right.

ROMNEY: Jim, let me just come back on that -- on that point, which is these...

LEHRER: Just for the -- just for record...

(CROSSTALK)

ROMNEY: ... the small businesses we’re talking about...

LEHRER: Excuse me. Excuse me. Just so everybody understands, we’re way over our first 15 minutes.

ROMNEY: It’s fun, isn’t it?

LEHRER: It’s OK, it’s great. No problem. Well, you all don’t have -- you don’t have a problem, I don’t have a problem, because we’re still on the economy. We’re going to come back to taxes. I want move on to the deficit and a lot of other things, too. OK, but go ahead, sir.

ROMNEY: You bet…

This certainly isn’t journalism, much less debate moderation; it’s more akin to a deferential talk show host trying to navigate into commercial break. And that verbal tic you see above—“all right”—was a phrase that Lehrer used no less than 17 times, often taking up a spot where an engaged journalist would actually try to, oh I don’t know, actually ask a follow-up question.

Lehrer, on the other hand, seemed content with simply cueing up broad topics or “pods”—in what is surely an awful term we can forever lay to rest—and then letting the candidates unspool long passages of well-rehearsed talking points back and forth. (Or in the case of Obama, sometimes not so well-rehearsed talking points.) As a result, the audience was left with little factual context to judge which arguments are grounded in truth and which are simply a well-woven tapestry of campaign trail concoctions.

But Lehrer not only failed in the basic task of managing the debate, he failed in the more important task of acting as the public’s proxy. By my count, Lehrer only asked three direct questions of the candidates in the first 35 minutes, and all of them were of the same stilted structure: “What’s the difference between you and your opponent on… jobs…taxes…the deficit?”

Simply put, Wednesday's debate was a microcosm of the failures of journalism’s objectivity model. By employing safe, but woefully weak ways of engaging discussion, Lehrer allowed both candidates safe passage into framing each topic any which they wanted. All night long, his journalistic cop outs all but assured the audience got a heavy dose of “he said, he said” rhetoric and plenty of dishonest answers like, “I want to take that $716 billion [the President] cut and put it back into Medicare.” This kind of neutered approach may have satisfied the press’s long-held obsession with maintaining political neutrality and avoiding claims of bias, but the fundamental lack of curiosity underpinning it failed to force candidates onto unfamiliar or challenging intellectual terrain.

Indeed, Lehrer’s goal at the debate seemed to be to highlight the idea that the two candidates for president have fundamental disagreements on policy, a point so blindingly obvious that it needs no explication. Yet, halfway through the debate, there was Lehrer, taking a detour from the discourse to deliberately spell out his theme: “Can we—can the two of you agree that the voters have a choice—a clear choice between the two...of you on Medicare?” Both candidates, of course, answered, “Absolutely.” But Lehrer never displayed any interest in doing the journalistic legwork necessary to push past these presentations of partisan plans to probe into the particulars. Pity.

Granted, a debate is just that. And any moderator, even if he or she is a truly engaged journalist, can only do so much in terms of calling out candidates for inaccuracy and holding up their worldviews for scrutiny. During those 90 minutes, the onus finally falls on the two main participants and so it’s the president who will ultimately bear the responsibility for whatever consequences arise from his unwillingness to directly counterpunch against the flurry of Romney’s inaccurate claims.

But let it not go unnoted that Lehrer’s structural channeling of how the right-wing frames most economic discussions did Obama no favors. When a substantial portion of the debate centers on how and how much to cut the deficit—the one issue on which Romney has consistently led the president all year—while it completely ignores other vast, critical expanses of domestic policy, like income inequality, women’s reproductive rights, climate change, and immigration, then that makes it that much more difficult to engage voters who haven’t already bought into conservative dogma.

Fortunately, the political press corps has a chance to redeem itself. In the days following, the rest of the media can start to do what Lehrer abjectly failed to do in the moment—parse the substance of all of Wednesday's rhetoric and overlay it against the facts and reality. This analysis won’t change who “won” the performance element of the debate—that’s Romney’s trophy for good—but in the long run the public will still be better served knowing the truth, even if after the fact. And this experience might serve as a warning shot across the bow of the rest of this election’s debate moderators as well as the Washington press corps as a whole. That is, if you’ve been chosen for your auspicious position specifically because of your journalistic skills, you damned well ought to lose that job if you don’t conduct some journalism while you’re doing it.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

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