The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In debates, gaffes and viral moments are entertaining. But they shouldn’t steal the show.

“You’re no Jack Kennedy,” Democratic Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, left, told Republican Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana during their 1988 vice presidential debate in Omaha. They shook hands after the face-off. (Ron Edmonds/AP)

As the first Democratic presidential debate approaches, journalists know one thing: The campaign craziness will get crazier.

Debates do that.

We all remember candidate Donald Trump’s sexist swipe at Fox News’s Megyn Kelly — the “blood coming out of her wherever” moment — after the first Republican primary debate in 2015.

Going back to the 1988 campaign, recall Democrat Lloyd Bentsen’s famous jab at Republican Dan Quayle — “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” — during a vice presidential debate between the senators from Texas and Indiana.

Or the seeming gaffe that turned into a popular win for future president Barack Obama, in a 2007 South Carolina debate against Hillary Clinton when he was asked if he would be willing to meet “separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration . . . with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea?” Obama, shockingly, said he would. (He didn’t.)

Or how about the minds that were blown only minutes into an October 2012 debate between Obama and Mitt Romney when BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith published a piece with this headline: “How Mitt Romney Won the First Debate.”

When Wednesday and Thursday arrive, weird, unscripted moments and hot takes will once again explode in all their viral splendor. Journalists and political insiders thrive on that sort of thing.

And since politics is (maybe foremost) sport and spectacle, nothing can stop that.

But there is something else to consider.

How well does this serve all the undecided voters out there: swing voters and fence-sitters, genuinely interested citizens and casual bystanders?

People will, of course, watch the Miami debate for themselves in huge numbers. With 20 candidates and five moderators over two consecutive nights, it’s bound to be a circus — certainly watched by millions.

For comparison: An estimated 84 million viewers watched the first Trump-Clinton debate; and some recent cable-network town halls with individual candidates have drawn as many as 2 million viewers.

But those people — and many more who didn’t watch — will also pay attention to the immediate and day-after coverage. Or, more likely, the headlines, chyrons, video snippets and news alerts.

And debate coverage that focuses heavily on the gaffe and the media moment won’t help them.

“I’ve always counseled candidates to keep their eye on the ball, which is the voter,” Democratic political consultant Doug Hattaway told Reuters last week.

That’s apt advice for journalists, too.

Hundreds of them will be in Miami. Hundreds more will be watching, reporting and opining from afar.

Is that a good use of limited journalistic resources?

That’s, well, debatable. But it certainly won’t be a good use if they converge on the wacky moment of the night to the exclusion of almost everything else.

Can journalists help themselves?

Writing in the New Statesman, the incisive British journalist Helen Lewis took aim last week at the harm done by pack journalism, both in the United Kingdom and the United States.

“The seductive power of the conventional narrative is one of the most distorting forces in political journalism,” she wrote. “Jeremy Corbyn is useless, Donald Trump is a joke, Theresa May is the Iron Lady, Remain will win, the Liberal Democrats are finished, Nigel Farage has retired from politics. All of these seem true, until – suddenly – they are not.”

And Lewis (who is joining the Atlantic as a staff writer) has some advice: “We must try to tune out what everyone else is obsessed with.”

She’s ever so right. But it’s not easy to do in the era of second-to-second competition and a business model that often rewards the most provocative take on the subject that “everybody” is talking about.

Thoughtfulness? Deep analysis? Citizen-oriented coverage?

They take the back seat, at best.

In the Buffalo area over the weekend, I talked with some voters in the heavily Republican region southwest of the city — part of the district represented by Republican Chris Collins, the first member of Congress to endorse Trump; Collins won reelection last fall despite having been indicted on insider-trader charges. (The surrounding county, Erie, which includes Buffalo, went for Clinton in 2016.)

Several registered Republicans told me they had no interest in watching the debates. Those who voted for Trump are satisfied, they said, and see little reason to look elsewhere.

But Joe Ferguson, a Democrat who voted for Trump in 2016, said he would tune in to the debates both nights, though he’s leaning toward another vote for Trump.

“I’d like to get some sense of their character and their policies,” the 40-year-old tech-support worker told me as we chatted in a bank parking lot. He said he relies for his news mostly on Fox News’s daytime coverage and on social media.

His hopes for media coverage? Ferguson wants to see fact-checking in real time, and most of all, he’d like to get a serious assessment of what happens — “not a bunch of headlines like you’d get on TMZ.”

In other words, he’s not there for entertainment. And he hopes journalists aren’t, either.

It doesn’t seem too much to ask.

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