The expectations game and working the refs for the debate

Donald Trump is already working the media refs, declares the debate moderators unfair. Trump “is laying the groundwork for post-game complaints if he thinks the debates, starting with next Monday’s faceoff on Long Island, don’t go well.”

Greg Sargent of the Washington Post recently commented on the upcoming presidential debates:

Get ready for news organizations to grade Trump’s debate performance on a massive curve. Here is a depressing harbinger of what’s coming, from CNN today:

In front of a vast television audience, the GOP nominee could reshape perceptions of his character and readiness — if he can avoid being drawn into gaffes and personality clashes by Clinton. He will benefit from rock-bottom expectations, given controversies whipped up by his tempestuous personality and the vast gulf in experience between Trump and Clinton.


In other words, if Trump doesn’t try to urinate in Clinton’s direction or manages not to vomit all over his podium, he will have “defied expectations.” So presidential! In saying these types of things, news orgs and commentators never allow that they are the ones who decide whether the supposed defiance of expectations in question actually should lead us to lower the bar for a candidate or otherwise factor in to how we judge his or her performance. It shouldn’t.

There will be a lot of pressure on the news orgs not to play this game, but it’s reasonably possible that we’ll see a lot of it, anyway. This is going to be infuriating, so prepare your medicine of choice right now.

Greg Sargent follows up today with an interview of Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon, Clinton campaign prods media: Hold Trump accountable for his debate lies:

Trump’s debate performance should not be “graded on a curve,” arguing that if Trump unleashes his familiar barrage of lies on Monday night, he should be called out for it in assessments of his performance — and that such lies should be seen as “disqualifying.”

“Any assessment of Trump’s performance should rise or fall on whether he continues to resort back to his long-debunked lies,” Fallon said. “These types of lies should be treated as disqualifying. It would be unfathomable to anoint him successful in the debates if he’s persisting in those types of lies. That can’t be ignored in the grading of his performance.”

Many observers … have expressed hopes that the media’s first draft version of the first debate will not judge him against a phony, arbitrary, media-generated standard of “low expectations” when it comes to his knowledge and temperament, which would amount to giving him credit for not being quite as ignorant, unhinged, and abusive as usual.

In the interview, Fallon insisted that the campaign is only asking that Trump be “held to the same standard” as Hillary Clinotn in this regard.

Sargent’s colleague at the Post, Paul Waldman makes A plea for sanity in the media coverage of the debates:

Most of what you hear before and after [the debate] is going to be a twisted version of reality presented as an objective, savvy assessment, offered up so you can consider yourself one of the clever insiders who has a keen grasp of how the whole thing played with the rubes. Don’t buy into it.

The first and perhaps most important element of this distorted picture is that holy concept of “expectations.” Many liberals are concerned that lowered expectations for Donald Trump will lead the media to declare him the winner. They worry about this kind of conventional wisdom, from the Associated Press:

“By virtue of her long political resume, Hillary Clinton will enter her highly anticipated fall debates with Donald Trump facing the same kind of heightened expectations that often saddle an incumbent president. Trump, as the political newcomer, will be more of a wild card with a lower bar to clear.”

Or as the sage (sic) Mark Halperin puts it, “Winning has less to do with pure performance, it’s almost all about beating expectations.”

It’s important that we pause for a moment to acknowledge how ludicrous this idea is. If someone who was expected to come in last in an Olympic race actually comes in fifth, we don’t give him the gold medal and put a huge picture of him on the front page because he exceeded expectations. We might note his performance, but he still lost. The truth is that if one candidate exceeded expectations, the only thing it really means is that the expectations were wrong. In other words, the people doing the expecting didn’t understand the situation adequately. Yet we talk about it as though the candidate who exceeded expectations has somehow proven themselves to be more capable of being president than the candidate who merely met expectations. . . [I]t’s often the reporters themselves who have determined what these expectations “should” be.

* * *

But there’s a problem with my analogy of the Olympic race, too: The presidential debates don’t have to have a winner and a loser. The election will have a winner and a loser, but the debates are supposed to be a means to get greater insight into the candidates and help voters make their decisions. You can have a terrific debate — lively, enlightening, revealing — in which nobody actually wins or loses. Yet a huge amount of time will be spent talking about whether Trump or Clinton “won” — pundits will opine on the question, polls will be taken on it, and throughout almost no one will ask why it matters.

* * *

To sum up: “expectations” are meaningless, nobody actually has to win or lose, don’t think that one moment is all that mattered, and perhaps most importantly, try not to forget that the point of the whole thing is that one of these two people will be the next president. No matter how silly the debate or the post-debate coverage gets, if we keep that in mind we’ll be alright.

Bill Moyers of PBS has a different perspective. There’s No Debate:

Let’s call the whole thing off.

Not the election, although if we only had a magic reset button we could pretend this sorry spectacle never happened and start all over.

No, we mean the presidential debates — which, if the present format and moderators remain as they are, threaten an effect on democracy more like Leopold and Loeb than Lincoln and Douglas.

We had a humiliating sneak preview Sept. 7, when NBC’s celebrity interviewer Matt Lauer hosted a one-hour “Commander-in-Chief Forum” in which Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump spoke with Lauer from the same stage but in separate interviews. The event was supposed to be about defense and veterans issues, yet to everyone’s bewilderment (except the Trump camp, which must have been cheering out of camera range that Lauer was playing their song), Lauer seemed to think Clinton’s emails were worthy of more questions than, say, nuclear war, global warming or the fate of Syrian refugees.

Of course, that wasn’t a debate per se but neither are the sideshows that we call the official debates, even though the rules put in place by the nonprofit Commission on Presidential Debates are meant to insure a certain amount of fairness and decorum — unlike the trainwreck of “debates” during the primary season, which were run solely by the parties and media sponsors with no adult supervision.

But despite the efforts of the commission, the official presidential debates coming up also are dominated by the candidates and the media, and therein lurk both the problems and the reasons to scrap this fraudulent nonsense for something sane and serious.

Moyer’s provides a history of how the debates have been hijacked by the political parties and the media conglomerates. He continues:

mediaconglomerates[I]t’s not just the candidates involved in this criminal hijacking of discourse. The giant media conglomerates — NBCUniversal (Comcast), Disney, CBS Corp., 21st Century Fox, Time Warner — have turned the campaign and the upcoming debates into profit centers that reap a huge return from political trivia and titillation. A game show, if you will — a farcical theater of make-believe rigged by the two parties and the networks to maintain their cartel of money and power.

“Debating,” Jill Lepore writes, “like voting, is a way for people to disagree without hitting one another or going to war: it’s the key to every institution that makes civic life possible, from courts to legislatures. Without debate, there can be no self-government.” But the media monoliths have taken the democratic purpose of a televised debate — to inform the public on the issues and the candidates’ positions on them — and reduced it to a mock duel between the journalists who serve as moderators — too often surrendering their allegedly inquiring minds — and candidates who know they can simply blow past the questions with lies that go unchallenged, evasions that fear no rebuke and demagoguery that fears no rebuttal.

Remember that it was CBS CEO Leslie Moonves who whooped about the cash to be made from the campaign, telling an investors conference in February, “The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us… Bring it on, Donald. Keep going. Donald’s place in this election is a good thing.” Oh, yes, good for Moonves’ annual bonus, but good for democracy? Don’t make us laugh.

* * *

Remember, too, that both Lauer and Trump are NBCUniversal celebrities who have earned millions from and for the networks. (Vanity Fair magazine even reported that NBCUniversal boss Steve Burke had spoken hypothetically with Trump about continuing The Apprentice from the White House.) Moderating the first presidential debate on Sept. 26 is NBC anchorman Lester Holt, a nice and competent fellow, but facing the same pressure as his fellow teammate Matt Lauer to not offend their once-and-possibly-future NBC star Donald Trump.

And remember that Anderson Cooper of Time-Warner’s CNN, the all-Trump-all-the-time network, and Martha Raddatz of Disney’s ABC News will anchor the second presidential debate (to her credit, Raddatz did a good job during the 2012 vice presidential debate) — and that the final, crucial close encounter between Trump and Clinton will be moderated by Chris Wallace of Fox, the very “news organization” that joined with Donald Trump to gleefully spread the Big Lie of Birtherism that served Trump so well with free publicity (and Fox so well with ratings) and that Trump now conveniently and hypocritically repents.

We wait breathlessly to see if during that debate Wallace inquires of Trump: “Did you really believe that lying about Barack Obama’s birth was good for the country?” And: “What is your source for saying Hillary Clinton started the rumor that Obama was not born in America?” And: “How do we know you won’t change your mind again and raise further doubts about whether the president is an American?” And — to pick up on a suggestion from The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, who has been reporting on Trump’s charitable giving — or lack thereof: “Mr. Trump, will you now follow through on your promise to donate $5 million to charity once you were given proof that President Obama was born in the United States? What charity do you have in mind? One of your own, perhaps?”

Wallace has already admitted he is in no position to hold Trump accountable for the lies he tells in the “debate” — that “it’s not my job” to fact check either Trump or Clinton during the course of their appearance with him. That should be pleasing to Roger Ailes, who was fired as head of the Fox News empire for scandalous sexist behavior but who is now giving Trump debate tips. Wallace is on record saying how much he admired and loved Ailes, to whom he owes his stardom at Fox — “The best boss I’ve had in almost a half a century in journalism,” Wallace said.

Such conflicts of interest at the core of the debates reminds us of what Woody Allen said back in one of his earlier, funnier films — that the whole thing is a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham. And why are we so complacent about the hijacking of our political process — that it has descended to this level where the two parties and the media giants pick as the only surrogates of the American people the minions of an oligarchic media riddled with cronyism and conflicts of interest?

So yes, scrap the debates as they are and rebuild. Even with a few days left until the first one there’s time to call everyone together, announce that our democracy deserves better and change the rules.

* * *

Does anyone really believe a candidate so unstable [as Trump] can or will engage in serious debate? And if our first line of defense against his volcanic lies — journalists supposedly committed to truth — crumbles, how will we ever clean up the contamination?

Something’s got to give. We can’t go on like this. We can no longer leave the electoral process to the two parties or the media conglomerates with whom they’re in cahoots. The stakes are too high.

3 thoughts on “The expectations game and working the refs for the debate”

  1. Let’s not forget that some Hillary supporters attacked Lauer and Fallon for not going for Trump’s jugular vein, which could be seen as an attempt to intimidate the future debate moderators.
    Also, a Washington Post (pro-Hillary paper) analysis of coverage found no significant media bias in coverage. Not sure I agree but this comes from a pro-Hillary paper.

    Also, if Hillary is the seasoned government veteran and Trump the newbie, why not have higher expectations for her?

  2. We need a modern Fairness Doctrine, updated for the internet age.

    The media isn’t going to fix itself, no matter how toxic to democracy it has become.

Comments are closed.