If you’ve been reading me for a while, you probably know that while I have my problems with Vox, I also admire what they do. Some people there, like Max Fisher, are awesome. But even at its core of where it shows off its upper-middle class biases, it still provides reasonably good coverage. So when I see them make a clear conceptual mistake, it disturbs me because I know it is so much worse at The New York Times, much less Fox News. In this case, I’m talking about its debate coverage.
Dylan Matthews wrote one of their typical genre articles of debate coverage, 3 Winners and 2 Losers From Saturday Night’s Republican Debate. These are always interesting, even if I consider them wrong. The three winners were: Jeb Bush, the Democrats, and the moderators; the two losers were: Donald Trump and Marco Rubio. He felt that Rubio lost because he was just okay and he needed to shine. The Democrats won because, “The longer, the bloodier, and the sillier this campaign season is, the better it is for the eventual Democratic nominee.” And the moderators won because they did a reasonably good job.
Debate Coverage: Not Like Music Criticism
Matthews’ argument for Trump being a loser and Bush being s winner, however, are based on the same questionable analysis: the theater audience was clearly with Bush. Think about this from different perspective. You are a classical music critic and you are supposed to review Yoyo No Mas, the great tenor who hasn’t performed in over a decade. He’s performing in his hometown. And everyone loves his performance. But you are a professional and you know Yoyo No Mas has lost it: his rhythm is erratic and he’s flat when he hits high notes. Do you write a glowing review because the clearly biased audience ate it up? I don’t think so.
But that’s what Matthews did. And he isn’t alone. That seems to be the consensus of the debate coverage: Bush did well because, oh, how the audience cheered him and Trump did poorly because he got booed — a lot. Most of the rest of the media firmament may be unaware of the situation. They may actually think that the audience is indicative of South Carolina voters. But the truth is that Trump was right when he said, “That’s Jeb’s special interests and lobbyists talking.” And Matthews knows this! He wrote, ” Apparently only 600 of the 1,600 tickets to the event were given to the candidates, and the state and national party controlled most of the rest.” He added to this, “The result was an enthusiastically pro-Jeb crowd.”
Let’s Repeat the False Narrative!
Now I get this. If I were the Republican Party establishment, I’d do it too. It certainly must have looked to many viewers at home that Jeb Bush had a feisty debate. But why should the media play along? Isn’t it the job of the media to report that Jeb’s new more aggressive stance against Trump is mostly just a matter of stage lighting and make-up? Jeb Bush was only a winner if the debate coverage ignores this fact.
From my vantage point, Jeb Bush was better than he has been. But it’s just as easy to make the same argument about him that Matthews made about Rubio. And to me, every time the audience booed Trump, it made me think how pathetic the Republican establishment is. I suspect that this is even more true of Trump supporters. And it makes Jeb Bush look like exactly the weak guy that Donald Trump has portrayed him as: someone who needs his powerful family and establishment connections to win the race.
What the media need to understand is that they affect the game. A lot more people will see debate coverage than the actual debate. If Jeb Bush really was a winner for those who watched the debate, proclaiming him so only pushes a very fake reality that the Republican Party establishment has created.
Update (15 February 2016 11:07 am)
Check this out, Poll: Rubio Won Republican Debate. The placement from the CBS News overnight poll was this: Rubio, Trump, Kasich, and then Cruz. The Drudge Report readers’ poll had this placement: Trump, Cruz, and then Rubio. Notice anyone who’s missing for these polls? That’s right: Jeb Bush. And according to Dylan Matthews, he was the only Republican in the “win” category.