“A pretty ugly evening,” is how syndicated columnist Mark Shields described the second presidential debate on PBS Sunday night in what could have been the event’s subtitle. “Not elevating. Not inspiring.”
On the same broadcast, New York Times columnist David Brooks called it “historic and repulsive.” But neither Shields nor Brooks acknowledged the media’s own role in making it that way.
In the abundance of post-mortems I watched last night, I heard a lot of criticisms of Trump’s demeanor, of Hillary’s rigidity and of their flailing more than landing crisp punches. You know what I didn’t hear – not once, not from anyone? I didn’t hear that the focus of the debate wasn’t on policy – that there was no nuanced and serious discussion of a host of issues. It was a brawl.
You can blame the bully Donald Trump, who wouldn’t know an issue if it slapped him in the face. You could even blame Hillary Clinton, though why one would do so is incomprehensible. She and moderator Martha Raddatz, along with one or two audience participants, seemed to be the only folks who understood that one of these two candidates actually will be making life or death decisions for all of us.
But really, the blame falls squarely on the media for not holding the debaters to the highest possible standard of discourse. Despite decades of criticism, the media can’t keep themselves from delivering theater reviews rather than demanding policy discussions. I suppose none of them can shake the idea that political commentators aren’t in the politics business any more than Trump is. They are in the entertainment business. Their only questions after a debate are: Did it work the way the candidate wanted it to work? And: Who won?
To that end, the immediate verdict almost everywhere was that Donald Trump stopped the bleeding, which is exactly what most of them said about Hillary Clinton after the first debate. (They were talking about hemorrhaging in the candidates’ campaigns; the country is still grievously wounded.)
In the wake of the Access Hollywood video, the GOP panjandrums had been scheming for a way to dump Trump or get him to self-immolate. The big news, said the pundits after the debate, was that that anti-Trump effort was effectively dead. “Clinton is Still Standing and Trump Isn’t Going Away,” reported The New York Times. And the usually sensible conservative commentator, Michael Smerconish, declared on CNN: “The night belongs to Trump.”
That didn’t stop some pundits, like GOP operative Steve Schmidt on MSNBC, from suggesting that Mike Pence might leave the ticket, an idea that quickly sped across the media when it was announced that Pence had cancelled a fundraising appearance scheduled for Monday.
The media admitted after the debate that the bar for Trump was extremely low, and then the media said — surprise! — that he had jumped it. They uniformly said he was better than in the first debate. “Better” in media-speak, of course, doesn’t mean more informed or substantive or even intelligible. “Better” meant that he stayed on the attack, occasionally putting Clinton on the defensive. Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report, who pontificated on PBS, said “he was very prepared” — apparently to pressure Clinton. He certainly wasn’t prepared to discuss his policies.
But even as the autopsies were being performed, the coroners began finding some things they didn’t think particularly helped Trump, and the night got worse for him as it wore on. Former Obama chief strategist David Axelrod, now a talking head on CNN, felt Trump “galvanized his base again,” but “perhaps at the expense of expanding it.” That rapidly became one of the evening’s central talking points. Chuck Todd, NBC’s political director, on MSNBC: “If you take the debate in isolation, he made his base very happy… and he did keep the debate on his terms.” But – again the “but” – “The next two days are going to be very bad for him,” meaning that he said a lot of things on which Democrats could pounce. “It’s a terrible 30-second clip reel.” Amy Walter agreed: “He was talking to the 40 percent who are already with him.”
By morning, this had become a consensus, no doubt in large measure because the CNN instapoll indicated that the pundits had been wrong when they crowned Trump. The poll found Clinton the winner by a landslide: 57 percent to 34 percent. Moreover, as CNN political director David Chalian summarized the results, Clinton was rated higher on “every issue and every attribute.”
Ooops! Because it wasn’t even close, the media now had to recalibrate. The Washington Post headlined: “Trump Signals Mud-Slinging Endgame; Clinton Points to GOP Unraveling.” Other analyses in the paper, by Dana Milbank, conservative Jennifer Rubin, reporters Jenna Johnson, David Weigel and Philip Bump all concurred that Trump hadn’t done himself any good. “He was a man at odds with everybody,” wrote Milbank. The Los Angeles Times called Trump’s performance “mediocre” and Cathleen Decker, in her lead analysis, opined: “Trump ended the debate in the same wounded condition in which he’d begun it.”
Two points emerged from the media scrum. The first, settled upon as the evening wore on and amplified in the morning-after analyses, was that Trump’s threat to prosecute Clinton and throw her in jail was reprehensible. Even temperate reporters like CNN’s Dana Bash seemed abashed. She called it “stunning.” Others weighed in that this was banana republic talk, dictator talk, the kind of talk that simply was not acceptable in America where even the losers put country above themselves and embrace the results. Here was a presidential candidate saying he would imprison his opponent. The pundits didn’t seem to get this at first. But by the time it dawned on them what this meant, they were incredulous.
The real story, however, was still that Access Hollywood tape. Trump might have thought he was being shrewd by turning the debate on accusations rather than issues, on the distractions rather than the substance. Instead, he only served to amplify his gigantic misstep. By the time the media analysts had finished their “Trump was better” and “Trump won” comments, they already were talking about the damage he continued to do to his standing with women voters.
CNN analyst Paul Begala was the only one I saw who noted that because the debate was up against NBC Sunday Night Football, the audience was likely to skew heavily toward women. He said that if he had been advising Trump, he would have told him after the debate, “Boss, we have trouble with women, and you just made it worse.” Women who watched the debate thought Clinton had won it, 64 percent to 30 percent. A woman at a CBS debate-watching party in Columbus, Ohio, called Trump “rude” and “condescending.” At the CNN focus group, women also criticized his imperious attitude.
More, several pundits discussed Trump’s attempt to intimidate Clinton physically. David Brooks said on PBS he thought the debate might even become known for Trump’s “Mafioso-type stalking,” the way the first Bush-Gore debate was identified by Gore’s alleged sighs and incursions into Bush’s physical space. Sarah Kaufman in The Washington Post discussed how Trump’s body language, which was a macho display against a woman, dominated the debate.
If this was indeed ladies’ night, The New York Times’ Michael Barbaro and Amy Chozick concluded that Trump had to make amends to women, and he didn’t. “The sound of Mr. Trump at his most obscene lingered over Sunday night’s confrontation like an unbudging cloud,” they wrote.
Note, again, in all the hours and columns of dissection, not a word about policy, save for Trump taking exception to his own running mate’s saber-rattling against Russia in Syria, which the media framed not in policy terms but in entertainment terms: Trump versus Pence.
It was all showbiz, which this time didn’t bode well for Trump. In fact, the best line of the night wasn’t from either of the candidates or the media, but from a tweet by Moustafa Bayoumi, an author and Brooklyn College professor:
I'm a Muslim, and I would like to report a crazy man threatening a woman on a stage in Missouri. #debate
— Moustafa Bayoumi (@BayoumiMoustafa) Oct. 10, 2016
That about sums it up.