Somebody helped himself Tuesday; the trouble is we really won't know who it was until Nov. 4. The last week of a campaign is one in which the voters are prepared to accept misrepresentation, overstatement and false claims from the candidates. Voters know that men running for office have tendency to over-campaign in the last few days of a race. They are used to this phenomenon; they even find it somewhat helpful since even blatant misrepresentation can create enthusiasm and reinforce the desire of a voter to go to the polls.
But I wonder whether the people aren't a little exasperated with the press, expecially television. You see, the press is unwilling to say what it thinks, but more than willing to overstate, misrepresent and make false claims in the guise of discussing how it thinks the people will react.
Most analysts first safely said they thought the debate was a draw, but then quickly stepped into the shoes of the people to say such things as Carter had more to prove or that Reagan, by avoiding outrageous, statements, proved that he was capable of being president.
By what divine right does the press presume it knows anything about the people? By what false notion of its own importance does it attempt to control the thougts of voters by threatening them with the prospect that, by exercising their franchise against the grain of what the press concludes to be majority thinking, they may be making a mistaken judgement? And if it is true that the press cannot decide who won a debate, cannot in effect make up its own mind, how is it that the press can so quickly presume to tell us what the people think? Either the press doesn't have the guts to say what it thinks and uses the people as a way to state its opinion without taking responsibility, or the pres thinks the people so stupid that their thought processes can be assumed and analyzed by sophisticates who can't even decide what happened themselves.
As one who knows what hell it is to be on the inside of a close race that you are trying to move in your direction in the last heated days, I know how frustrating it is when those who presume to know so much about the process simply refuse to be fair.
ABC may have set an all-time record for putting its financial interest in trying to be entertaining far above any responsibility to serve the process: it conducted a straw ballot in which participants had to be willing to spend 50 cents for a telephone call, in which urban voters were disadvantaged because the telephone equipment could handle only 5,000 calls a minute and in which no allowance was made or mentioned of the fact that if the extreme left or right is particularly enamored of a candidate, this kind of exercise is a setup in which the broad middle, where most of the voters are, is falsely made to look less significant. ABC even handed out a release Wednesday purporting to say that two-thirds of the debate-watchers thought Reagan had helped himself. ABC should be forced to put on all its news shows in the future a disclaimer that reads, "This network is no longer in the news business but only seeks to use the news as a possible source of entertainment."
But lest you think Carter was the only loser to the press's fascination with its own power, what about the token abservation that Reagan looked old? For two years, Reagan has avoided the invitation from the press to make a fool of himself by reacting to the press's contention that he had a horrible problem because of his age. To the press, it would have been wonderful if Reagan could have been forced to stand on his head, jog 20 miles a day or be heard talking jive. Then it could have gone to the people and said, "Aha! He knows he's got an age problem. Look at the way he's acting."
The people have never been bothered by Reagan's age, only the press; and although Reagan has withstood the rigors of a two-year presidential campaign, the press won't give up trying to interest the people in it.
What do you think the press would do to a politician if he tried to peddle the results of a poll that you had to pay 50 cents to vote in? What would the press do if a politician said Cronkite is nearing retirement and therefore one must assume he has slipped a cog or two?
We have never before held a debate so close to the election. Ordinarily, it takes about a week for an important event in a campaign to sift down through the electorate so that it is proper to take some measure of what perspective the people have gained from it. That is all that reliably can be said about this debate.
All the people who have been bored with hearing about the issues can relax for the next five days. Over that period of time, all the press is prepared to do is make guesses about who's going to win. If you are undecided, or are wondering whether you ought to waste your vote on John Anderson, you'll get help from the press: they're too busy operating in the dream world of their own power. They are not interested in the people anymore. Maybe the day isn't far off when the people will be less interested in the press.