Tonight’s Winner Depends As Much on the Media As It Does on the Candidates

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Political scientist John Sides tells us four important things about tonight’s GOP debate. I’d focus on the last one:

4) The media’s reaction to the debate may matter more than the debate itself. Most people won’t watch the debate. Heck, most Republican primary voters won’t watch the debate. So, how do people form impressions of who wins a debate? The news media plays a crucial role.

In 2012, I discussed a noteworthy experiment by Kim Fridkin and other scholars at Arizona State University. During the 2004 campaign, they showed people some footage of the third presidential debate; or the debate, plus 20 minutes of post-debate commentary on NBC; or the debate, plus 20 minutes’ time to read commentary on CNN.com….Those watching the debate tended to think that Kerry had won, as did those who read analysis on CNN. But those who watched the NBC postmortem had the opposite impression.

….The news media does a lot of interpretive work for us — framing events in particular ways, telling us how to interpret these events, and so on. Those judgments are sometimes explicit and sometimes phrased in passive voice constructions (“Senator Smith was widely seen as victorious”) or sourced to, well, others in the news media (“Many commentators saw Senator Smith as victorious”). So even if you don’t watch the debate, you may be able to tell which candidate, if any, will benefit — and whether that candidate is someone other than Trump. Just read the news on Friday.

This is absolutely true, and it’s even true in a meta way: news commentary affects the way other news commentators view the debate. Conventional wisdom can congeal very quickly after a debate, as pundits get themselves into sort of a vicious circle of not wanting to be seen as the odd man out. It’s peculiar that this matters to them, but it very plainly does.

And there’s not much you can do about it. That’s why I make it a point to turn off the TV and write my debate wrap-ups before I hear what anyone else has to say. I’ve found that other commentary affects me, mostly by making me a little nervous about saying what I initially thought. That’s stupid, but it’s human nature. So now I write in isolation and then publish. Then I turn on the TV and start reading my Twitter stream. If that affects my conclusions, I put it in a separate post. But at least the very first one is set in amber, maybe prescient or obtuse, but genuinely mine.

In any case, I agree with Sides and the research he cites. You can see public reaction to debates change surprisingly quickly between the insta-polls, mostly taken before the media weighs in, and polls taken in the day or two afterward. The latter are overwhelmingly populated by people who didn’t even watch the debate, but heard about the winners and losers from wherever they consume news. And that’s the impression that sticks.

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily bluster—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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