There’s a deep tension in the way the media judges presidential debates. On the one hand, we know that our coverage affects the public’s ultimate view of the event — in that way, we are key participants in the debate, not merely observers of it.
But that knowledge is uncomfortable. It’s not the role we are meant to play. The press wants to reflect reality, not shape it.
And so we attempt, peculiarly, to recast ourselves as observers of voter reactions we can’t observe. We judge the debate based not on what we think to be true about it but on what we think the public will think to be true about it. And so we end up asking not whether the candidates made good arguments given what we know to be true but whether they made good arguments given what we imagine voters know to be true. And once you’re in that mindset, a section where Trump sounded good can be a win even if nothing he said made sense — after all, fairly few voters are trade policy or labor market experts.
But the public isn’t relying on us to tell them what we thought they thought watching the debate. They’re relying on us to tell them what we found when we compared the candidates’ answers to reality, and to the best analysis on offer from experts, so they can make a better-informed judgment on what actually happened in the debate. And sometimes there’s a very big gap between how good a candidate’s answers sounded and how good his or her answers actually were.
That’s the case for Trump’s opening section last night. He was speaking on the issues where he’s supposed to be strongest — his whole pitch is he’s a businessman who knows how the economy really works and what is really needed to fix it — and he showed he didn’t have any real idea what he was talking about. Voters deserve to know that.