D-minus elite on debates: Pseudo-journalists love to discuss our past White House debates.
Gwen Ifill tried to do so this Sunday. Her effort was marked by two familiar press traits—self-involvement and incoherence.
Ifill presented a piece in the Washington Post: “5 Myths about presidential debates.” For what it’s worth, these are the “myths” she tried to shoot down:
Gwen Ifill’s five myths about debates:That struck us as a strange set of myths. Mainly, though, we were struck by Ifill’s rampant illogic—and by the depth of her self-involvement. H
1. Voters use debates to decide.
2. Candidates approve the questions ahead of time.
3. The moderator should pick fights with the candidates.
4. He who zings, wins.
5. Debates are the last best chance for candidates to define themselves.
How illogical is Ifill's piece? Here’s the way she starts to shoot down that fifth and final myth:
IFILL (9/30/12): 5. Debates are the last best chance for candidates to define themselves.Does that passage make any sense? Ifill starts by saying that a candidate can still define himself on SNL, even after the debates after completed.
No, “Saturday Night Live” is.
Whether it’s Tina Fey as Palin, Amy Poehler as Hillary Rodham Clinton or Jason Sudeikis as Romney or Vice President Biden, a dead-on impersonation that lampoons a candidate’s most cartoonish qualities can leave a nasty mark.
Gerald Ford was a gifted college athlete, but Chevy Chase convinced us that he was a bumbling buffoon. Bill Clinton is probably as skilled a politician as has ever graced the national stage, but Darrell Hammond spawned a generation of grainy-voiced, winking Clinton impersonators by portraying him as a leering man of untamed appetites.
That may be true, but she then gives examples of something else. She gives examples of candidates who got defined by SNL. None of her cases are examples of the possibility she is imagining.
At that point, Ifill starts talking about herself, as she frequently does in this piece. At some length, she recalls the way she herself was portrayed on SNL by Queen Latifah, a well-liked, attractive Hollywood star.
In all honesty, this fifth part of Ifill’s piece is mainly about Gwen Ifill’s greatness. To the extent that she pretends to explode a myth, she pens an illogical mess.
Beyond that, Ifill mainly discusses herself as she discusses myths 2 and 3. And by the way:
Do you ever hear people advancing the “myth” that moderators should pick fights with the candidates? (That’s Ifill’s third “myth.”) We rarely hear that “myth” advanced. Let’s be honest: In that part of her piece, Ifill is mainly defending her own performance as a moderator in 2008. Once again, the piece is all about her.
Ifill’s piece displays a great deal of self-involvement. When she does attempt to explode a few “myths,” her work is quite hard to follow. Example:
Is Ifill’s first “myth” really a myth? To us, it’s odd to see a journalist deny the idea that voters use the debates as a way to decide who to vote for. If the debates don’t serve that function, why do we even have them?
Here’s the start of Ifill’s explanation. We find this whole thing hard to follow:
IFILL: 1. Voters use debates to decide.As Ifill starts to shoot down that myth, she quickly confirms that it isn’t a myth! Some voters do use debates to decide! But apparently, since everyone doesn’t make his decision based solely on the debates, Ifill regards that first claim as a myth!
For many voters, televised presidential debates serve to focus the mind. Seeing the men who would be president—yes, always men, so far—face off helps viewers finally choose a side.
But debates are only part of the American voter’s political diet. Like 30-second ads or stump speeches, they do as much to confirm impressions as to alter them. Think back to some memorable debate moments. Did George H.W. Bush glancing at his watch really persuade people to vote for Bill Clinton, or did it confirm the worst suspicions of those already leaning away from him? Did Lloyd Bentsen dismissing Dan Quayle as “no Jack Kennedy” lose the election for Michael Dukakis, or did it speak to an existing worry that Bush lacked the judgment to pick a No. 2 who could assume the presidency?
That makes very weak sense. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, look what happens in that passage when Ifill discusses Bush’s glance at his watch and Bentsen’s famous putdown of Quayle:
Has anyone ever suggested that Bentsen’s putdown “lost the election for Michael Dukakis?” We’re baffled by that part of Ifill’s presentation. But we’re also confused by what she writes about Bush’s famous glance at his watch. She seems to imagine two possible cases—one case in which a voter made his decision based wholly on the glance at the watch, another case in which the glance simply confirmed a voter’s leanings.
In each instance, the voter Ifill imagines was in fact “using the debate to decide.” It’s hard to see how any of this shoots down Ifill’s “myth.”
Later on, this is simply inane:
IFILL: 4. He who zings, wins.For ourselves, we’ve never heard anyone advance the thesis that “he who zings” wins these debates. But Ifill shoots down this alleged “myth” by noting that Bentsen’s famous zinger, aimed at Quayle, came as part of a losing campaign.
This one is almost too easy to debunk. Lloyd Bentsen. Lloyd Bentsen. Lloyd Bentsen.
Did anybody ever claim that every election will be won by the ticket which zings the most? Even if the zinger is delivered by the vice-presidential candidate?
Ifill’s piece is a jumbled, illogical mess—except for the parts which are all about her. And yet, this work was done at the very top of our national “press corps.”
The NewsHour is billed as our smartest news show. This piece is a jumbled mess.
Can we talk? Despite their massive fame, your highest-ranking journalists just aren’t very sharp. In truth, your press corps is a D-minus elite. It’s a point we’ve been noting for years.