Covering a presidential debate can only sound glorious. You’re there, on the precipice of a world-historical moment, one of the chosen few with proximity to power. You get a swag bag and free lasagna and Pepsi from the food tent. You see quasi-celebrities (Jake Tapper!) and real ones (Mark Cuban!) freed from their TV cages, in desultory flesh-and-blood real life. You get to wear a credential around your neck. When you sit down among journalists in a cavernous gymnasium to watch the debate on television screens, your ego begins to sing: At last, I am an important journalist. Yet there may be no greater a waste of a news resource than a reporter at a televised presidential debate.
Being there amounts to flimsy prestige, telling your audience your organization spent the $75 for a workstation. The actual debate auditorium is filled with donors, pols, and a few students. Most journalists arrive to write some version of the same story. Repetition is paramount. Show up at Hofstra University, maybe interview kiddies about the thrill of the presidents-to-be in their midst, then hunker down to analyze/recap the hour-and-a-half affair like the Super Bowl/reality show chimera it will always be, adding your story to the swollen pile of Google news alerts.
You wouldn’t know the media is in retrenchment if you went to Hofstra last night. More than a thousand print, radio, television, and web reporters from across the country and world poured onto the Long Island campus, swallowing parking spaces and seats on shuttle buses ferrying them to the little 2016 debate county fair, a campaign-themed bouncy castle and bean-bag toss waiting in a parking lot where CNN and Fox assembled for live-shots. Donald Trump bros chanted “Build that wall!” at one overmatched Hillary Clinton fan who wanted to rebut conspiracy points about Benghazi. A good time was had by all. You may have seen my tweets.
Why do two dozen journalists trip over themselves to ask Cuban about what it’s like to be in Donald Trump’s head? Why do we care what Don King’s opinion is about anything? Why do we need Mike Pence to tell us Trump had a good debate? (What the hell else is he supposed to say?)
For a journalist, the supposed added-value of showing up at a debate is the spin room. In the “room,” an open area at the front of the carpeted gymnasium, campaign surrogates arrive with pre-programmed talking points to add filler to stories. They are very good at telling you roughly the same thing, no matter what transpired beforehand. Sometimes, they can say something unexpected. You shouldn’t count on it.
Understand that campaign reporting is about blindly following a series of preordained rituals and jamming real-world events into the balky framing. Many of the policies that impact us are passed in statehouses under-covered by ailing local media. Imagine if this energy that’s blasted at the presidential race was trained elsewhere. Last night’s debate was important and historic and game-changing — until the second and third debates.