(Almost) everything you know about television and politics is wrong

September 29, 2008

Most of us think we know where televised debates fit into a campaign for elected office. They can remake a failing campaign or break a glass house. They provide iconic moments by which history remembers the participants. They show us just how shallow our political process has become. Right? Wrong.

Or, at least, largely wrong, according to Bruce Carlson’s podcast My History Can Beat Up Your Politics.

After watching Friday’s debate between U.S. presidential candidates Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain, I listened to an episode of the fascinating My History podcast covering the impact of television, including televised debates, on the American political process. According to Carlson, TV hasn’t cheapened modern politics, in part because earlier media accomplished that task already. And as for debates making or breaking candidates? Seldom true, Carlson says. All in all, it’s a fascinating listen that may help put the next few weeks of the presidential campaign in a historical context

Click here for the MHCBUYP episode on television, politics and debates.

Click here to go to My History Can Beat Up Your Politics on iTunes.

I should say that I’m not really clear on who Carlson is, exactly — or what makes him an expert in either history or politics. Below is how Carlson replied when I asked him about how he knows the things he says he does. His podcast and opinions undoubtedly are fascinating, and I listen to his podcast regularly, but make up your own mind about how reliable you think his facts are.

“I work outside of politics and history, and my college degree was in literature. I have no training but a lifetime of spending bizzare amounts of time in the public libraries reading old books on history and politics. I suppose. My observations then, must stand on their own.”

— Bruce Carlson

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Elitada News stole my content

September 28, 2008

I know I’m not the only blogger whose content has been stolen and reprinted in its entirety elsewhere without payment or acknowledgment of ownership, so I won’t whine on forever about this — but I do want to say something for the record.

Please don’t visit the site (no reason to reward thievery with page views), but this morning I found that my post analyzing the first McCain-Obama debate reprinted on www(dot)elitada(dot)com/news/ — every word of it. The only indication that they got the content from me was a tiny link to my original post at the bottom of the page, with the permalink concealed. This isn’t an excerpt or a blogroll we’re talking about, it’s a clear violation of U.S. and international copyright laws.

Furthermore, the site seems to have a dummy comment form designed to prevent feedback. The form looks normal, but trying to submit a comment results in an error message that the commenter didn’t fill out the email address field — which doesn’t exist on the form.

The content presented at this site seems to be almost entirely stolen from other sources and reprinted without acknowledgment, so I’m not the only one with this issue.

Grading the first McCain-Obama debate

September 27, 2008

U.S. presidential candidates Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama met Friday for the first of three scheduled debates in the general election. Who won? Did the candidates accomplish what they needed to do?

Overall grades on the debate itself:

John McCain B-minus

Barack Obama B-minus

I thought the debate was a wash, if considered on its own. Obama looked much more comfortable than McCain did, but McCain seemed more knowledgeable about foreign policy, the main topic of the evening.

I was struck by the fact that whenever McCain attacked Obama, the CNN “Approve-O-Meter” showed a noticeable plunge in approval among independent voters, much more so than when Obama attacked McCain.

What about the things I previously said the candidates would do, or ought to do?

McCain did very well. He didn’t get too deep into the economy, but conveyed the impression that he was mighty mad at somebody. He displayed his expertise and experience in foreign policy to good effect. On the other hand, while Obama usually is the one who seems to be talking down to McCain, McCain was the one who came off as a condescending ass by repeatedly saying Obama “doesn’t understand.”

Obama did a great job of getting to the point in many of his answers, even phrasing his responses as numbered lists, which people love. He gave the short answer, and only then went back to get into the details. However, I think Obama missed out by not going back to the economy for context even when the questions turned to foreign policy. He also didn’t manage to provoke McCain’s temper, but that would have been merely gravy for Obama, so I don’t think it mattered that much.

Grades on the success of the debate in the broader context of the campaign:

John McCain B-minus

Barack Obama B-plus

For John McCain, the debate capped off a spectacularly awful two weeks for his campaign. For a week and a half after Sept. 15, when Lehman Brothers went belly-up and McCain said that the fundamentals of the American economy were strong, the Arizona senator came out with a different message about the economy every day. And when he finally did take clear action, it was to “suspend” his campaign and hustle back to Washington, there to insert himself into a Wall Street bailout plan under consideration by a committee of which the senator is not a member — with questionable impact, at best. On top of that, his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, floundered embarrassingly in a one-on-one interview with Katie Couric, who’s not exactly a crushing interrogator (I can think of a number of reporters I know personally who would have eaten Palin for lunch, then picked their teeth with the cast-off bones of minor PR flunkies before retiring to the corner bar for an afternoon of dice and cocktails).

What McCain needed was either an exceptional performance on his part, or a major stumble from Obama. Instead, the mostly pretty good performance from McCain was muddied by fact that Obama held his own in spite of clearly being less expert — and less experienced — than McCain, and Obama appeared every bit as presidential as McCain did. So McCain did well, but not well enough.

Simply keeping up with McCain on foreign policy, on the other hand, was an accomplishment for Obama. It would have been a coup for him to make serious points against the senior senator in a debate centered on one of McCain’s strongest subjects. Obama didn’t do that, and he failed to turn the conversation toward the economy as aggressively as he probably should have. Nevertheless, bad news about the economy generally favors out-party candidate Obama, which gives him a better context for the debate. With this context in mind, because Obama turned in a passably presidential performance and kept his opponent from establishing a clear victory, the debate turned out better for him than for McCain.

Other views

For an interesting alternative opinion on the debate, check out the analysis by San Francisco-based communication guru Bert Decker. Decker looks at the debate from an almost purely impressionistic perspective, which is in line with his expertise is in the communication of trust. That is, Decker believes that a speaker must convey believability before a listener can even really hear what the speaker is saying.

Also interesting: Two polls taken Friday night — which means they’re imperfect empirical research because their samples included only people whom they could reach on Friday night, so take them with a little salt — put Obama significantly ahead in overall impression. Poll respondents also said they thought Obama was more in touch with the problems of their own lives than was McCain. An Associated Press story on the polls is here.

Parting Shots

CNN’s Approve-O-Meter — or whatever the network called its approval ticker that appeared at the bottom of the screen during the debate — failed for three reasons. First, it was too hard to read the legend on the left explaining that the red line signified approval from Republicans in a selected audience, the blue line stood for Democrats and the green line stood for independents. Second, it was impossible to tell whether the lines, as they emerged from the right side of the display, signified results in real time or were delayed by some unknown length of time. Third, the graph was zoomed out too far to see the separation among the three lines, so it was annoyingly difficult to see when approval ratings changed. The overall result was just dull. It would have been better to have a three-bar graph showing a zero line, and colored bars extending above or below the zero line to indicate approval or disapproval from the three groups. This not only would make it easier for viewers to detect the differences among the groups, but would better represent real-time impressions of what the candidates were saying at the moment.

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How did you get here? Week of Friday, Sept. 26

September 26, 2008

My post about the fish stuck in a chain-link fence after Hurricane Ike was still the most popular post this week, but other popular pieces included one about Sarah Palin’s witch-proofing procedure and one about a party for local bloggers thrown by KPIX-TV’s blog about blogs, Eye on Blogs.

Some of the search terms that brought people to PretePress this week:

  • fish stuck in fence (and variations)
  • biggest rally in alaska’s history – oppo
  • biggest rally in alaska opposing palin
  • rush on the anti palin rally september
  • palin witch blessing
  • palin reverend blessing olbermann
  • oil spill animals
  • california adopts budget
  • seal beach rock crab
  • san francisco public space hidden
  • robert mccarthy
  • robert j. mccarthy sf
  • number 317 (Um, OK.)
  • sf events calendar polit*
  • san francisco examiner september 11th
  • “david burgin” 2008 editor
  • california politics by county
  • san francisco mccain obama debate 6 p.m.
  • watch debate sunset san francisco

Four things to watch for at first McCain-Obama debate

September 26, 2008

The story of the first debate between U.S. presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama is moving so fast — there’s the rapidly morphing context of the financial meltdown, not to mention the question of whether McCain was even going to show up — that I’m going to analyze the debate afterward, rather than trying to give a detailed prediction of how it’s going to go.

Still, I think Obama has a much tougher job than McCain does, as many voters still are uncertain about him. Here are a couple of things I expect to see tonight, or that I think the candidates ought to do:

  1. Economy, economy, economy. Obama should try to turn every question to the economy, and try to paint the current crisis as entirely the creation of rabid right-wing Republican de-regulators who now are trying to rob the little guy to save some pompous suit’s dream of retiring to a huge ranch in Wyoming. Never mind that some of the elemental causes of the crisis originated in the waning years of the Clinton administration.
  2. Obama should try to provoke McCain’s temper, but only if he can do it without looking like a condescending ass. If he can get McCain to blow up, or even just to lose his cool a little bit, it will cause some voters to question McCain’s temperament and provide material for future negative ads against the Arizona senator.
  3. McCain should try to avoid getting into specifics about the economy and the halting efforts toward a bailout plan, and stick to simple statements about greed, corruption and arrogance from Wall Street. The stated debate topic of foreign policy is strong area for McCain, so if he finds himself being dragged into the details of the economy, he needs to extract himself and turn to foreign policy.
  4. Obama needs to give simple, quotable answers to questions before he addresses details. This isn’t a time for building a legal argument, it’s a time for the inverted pyramid Give the broad overview using short words of Anglo-Saxon derivation, then get to the fine points if you have time.

The debate gets underway at 6 p.m. Pacific, 9 p.m. Eastern. On everywhere.

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Your political homework, done for you — Part 2: foreign policy

September 26, 2008

The first general-election debate between U.S. presidential candidates Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain is scheduled for this evening. While it’s nearly certain that much of the debate tonight will turn instead to the exigencies of the American economy, the nominal subject of this debate is foreign policy.

The debate is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. PDT, 9 p.m. EDT.

Don’t feel bad if you don’t know or can’t remember where Obama and McCain stand on the issues — the National Journal has done your homework for you.

The candidates on the issues

Barack Obama’s positions on Iraq

John McCain’s positions on Iraq

Barack Obama’s positions on national security

John McCain’s positions on national security

Further analysis from the National Journal:

The Fulcrum (Iraq)

Beyond Iraq

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Fun at the Eye on Blogs party

September 26, 2008

So I went to the party thrown by Eye on Blogs last night not knowing what to expect, but I ended up having a good time and meeting some good people with interesting blogs.

First mention, of course (and many thanks for the party), goes to Brittney Gilbert herself, author of the Eye on Blogs blog at KPIX-TV/CBS5. I didn’t get to talk with Brittney for long, though, because the effusive and charming Beth Spotswood of (among other things) I’ll Flip You. Flip You for Real showed up and stole the show.

I know I’m going to forget someone, so apologies in advance, but I also had a great time talking with Kathryn Hill of Kosmonaut, Johnny and Shannon from funcheapSF, Janice from Sunset Style (nice to meet another blogger from the Sandy Quarter of San Francisco), Chris of Spot-ON and Becca of Bullpen Baker. Links to their blogs are below.

Some hastily-snapped pics from my phone:

CBS5 Eye on Blogs party 01

CBS5 Eye on blogs party 02

CBS5 EYE on blogs party 03

P.S.: Only one sort-of complaint. As an old-time journo by temperament, I’ve always thought that three of the ugliest words in the English language are “no host bar,” so I was pleased to see Eye on Blogs spring for the beer and wine. But I still was a bit disappointed not to be able to get a gin and tonic, which is the perfect business-party drink because you can easily swap it for just carbonated water while everybody else’s tongues are getting looser and looser. Ah, well, free Anchor Steam and food — I think I can take the punishment.


Eye on Blogs


Sunset Style



Bullpen Baker