Knock-dead Coverage

Since this is a piece of campaign analysis, let's get right to the sports metaphors. As we know, every campaign writer has a designated quota of tired analogies to fill in each story, and I'm going to try to take care of mine right off the bat. I figure I get to rest my starters in the fourth quarter that way – assuming I build a big lead in the meat of the piece.

So here goes.

You know how sportswriters talk about this or that record not being broken, but smashed or obliterated? Well, that's exactly what we have on our hands after the first presidential debate. This Bush-Kerry ordeal is on the way to obliterating, if you will, a whole slew of records, each of them an all-time low. Even counting the 2000 presidential contest that made history by going into overtime, this election is already the most over-covered news phenomenon in history.

This sad fact became depressingly clear last week, when the national press corps' post-debate analysis became the second man-made object, after the Great Wall, to become visible from space.

How bad was it? At least one newspaper, the New York Times, put so many different people on the debate story that the resultant editorial confusion has likely willed into being a whole new job title in the journalistic profession – perhaps a newsroom pharmacist to make sure the contrary prescriptions of the various writers don't jeopardize the mental health of the unwary reader.

Here is Times political analyst Adam Clymer in his debate preview on Sept. 27: "Sometime in the 1980's 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 front-page articles."

Beckett, of all things. Imagine!

Ah, but what does the Times offer us this Sunday in exactly the same slot on the Times editorial page: Stephen Greenblatt playing drama critic in a piece titled "Friends, Americans, Countrymen," comparing Kerry and Bush to Brutus and Mark Antony, respectively.

Greenblatt's piece was a marvel, the clear jewel of the debate post-mortems. Pretentious beyond even George Will's wildest dreams, its desperation to keep its preposterous thesis superficially plausible was, at times, breathtaking. Consider this brazen attempt to cram the "flip-flop" theme into Shakespearean design:

In the heat of the moment this is a lot for anyone to process: how could Brutus have shifted from friend to foe? Are his deeds the mark of inconsistency or thoughtfulness? How could he be for and against the same man?
But Greenblatt was just getting started. About 150 words later, Greenblatt – in his day job, a Harvard University professor (we repeat: Harvard University Professor) – has Shakespeare retroactively add a video cutaway to "Julius Caesar," catching Mark Antony sporting a Bush-like scowl:
What if the crowd had glimpsed something in Antony's face when he did not know he was being observed that gave away his cynical scheme? The course of history – the collapse of order, years of bloodshed, wasted lives and treasure, the loss of liberty – would have been startlingly different.
Greenblatt is wrong, of course – civilizations in the classical age did not have armies of hysterical liberal arts grads staying up all night long blathering into bullhorns about Brutus looking at his wristwatch, or Crassus sighing during the rebuttals. That is a luxury only today's America, with its penchant for excess in all things including political punditry, can afford.

Take, for example, the Washington Post, which over the weekend filed two full-length stories about the Bush scowl alone. Both Post writers, Dana Milbank and E.J. Dionne, spent about 700 words saying exactly the same thing. "The Bush Scowl is destined take its place with the Gore Sigh," concluded Dionne on Saturday.

"Reminiscent of the first debate of the 2000 presidential campaign, when Al Gore's loud and pained sighs made the Democrat appear contemptuous and condescending," concluded Milbank anew, the very next day.

This kind of echo effect within publications was common in the post-debate feeding spree. The Times ran no fewer than four analyses whose principle aim was to argue that the debates ended up being more substantive and providing a greater contrast between the two candidates than expected. That number doesn't include Clymer's Sep. 27 preview, which was titled, unsurprisingly, "Look for Substance, Not Sizzle."

The Times post-debate "substance" lineup included: an analysis by Todd Purdum ("It was a real debate, sharp, scrappy and defining."); a house editorial ("This campaign was starved for real discussion and substance. Even a format controlled by handlers and spin doctors seemed like a breath of fresh air."); an obscenely verbose piece by burgeoning literary villain James Bennet ("The two men were drawing contrasts with each other but also, unavoidably, with themselves."); and, deserving honorable mention, the piece by Professor Greenblatt, who looked up from his Cliffs Notes long enough to observe: "To my surprise, substantive differences between President Bush and John Kerry emerged."

Anyone who has ever covered a presidential or a primary debate knows that – to use that sports analogy – the game is pretty much over before it starts. Literally hundreds of reporters pack into what is usually a windowless room somewhere in the bowels of the debate hall. Every single one of these writers then has to come up with something to say about an event designed specifically to preclude real drama.

It is a sad commentary on the state of campaign coverage that dozens of reporters emerged on Friday with the exact same judgment, using the exact same boxing metaphor: Kerry on points, no knockdowns, no knockouts. Even the Wall Street Journal – perhaps the only remaining major U.S. publication that has not yet described a poll lead in terms of a touchdown – outdid itself with a triple-cliche verdict: "John Kerry didn't score a knockout, but he climbed off the political ropes and took the presidential fight to President Bush."

Sports analogies or body language analysis is all but inevitable when each paper has just one reporter forced to come up with his version of Much Ado About Nothing. But when each paper assigns five or six writers to cover the same event, the result is pure manic gibberish. Just read, for instance, this passage by Bennet, which cannot be read as anything other than a desperate cry for help:
Indeed, with the presidential debate as its axis, the campaign appeared tonight to be collapsing in on itself and spinning more and more rapidly, not unlike one of the hurricanes that periodically twist through this state, laying waste to the landscape and leaving beleaguered residents wondering: Why?
Good question – why? We wish we knew, James. We wish we knew.

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