Debate advice: Turn off Twitter

To hear like a voter you have to listen

As we get ready for the Demolition Derby in Denver (aka the Mile High Mud Wrestle), I want to return for a moment to the golden days of campaign reporting when debate clichés were still being created the old-fashioned way, stamped out by journalistic craftsman down at the Old Metaphor Factory.

Wednesday night I will be Live Blogging for Yahoo News with my hands, tweeting with my feet, and maybe posting on Facebook with my elbows. But even amid this cavalcade of commentary, I hope I will remember the lessons about debate coverage that I picked up 28 years ago, during my first big prime-time moment.

The October 7, 1984, face-off between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale was an historic event: the first presidential debate ever scheduled on a Sunday night. For Newsweek and Time, still locked in their struggle for slick-paper supremacy, this was worse than a postal rate increase. In those days, both magazines went to press on Saturday night, with East Coast copies available early Monday morning. So a Sunday-night debate might as well have taken place on the dark side of the moon—a campaign capstone watched by 65 million viewers but invisible to newsmagazine readers.

Instead, in scramble-the-jets, hold-the-press-run fashion, both magazines stayed open, with scrappy Newsweek even pulling off a full debate cover. I can recall almost every moment of that Sunday night debate, since I wrote that Newsweek cover story. My instructions were simple: Type as many words of voice-of-God news-magazine prose on the debate as you can in 45 minutes before anxious editors meld it with your pre-written B-matter on the candidates’ week.

And I delivered, producing enough political bromides to fill a medicine chest and enough platitudes to satisfy both Plato and Socrates. Rereading my story on NEXIS (sorry, I could not locate it on the web), I cringe at the fandango of fatuousness: “The battle was finally joined” as Mondale looked “presidential” and the “candidates went podium to podium…during their intense fusillade over taxes and the economy.”

Two weeks later, feeling brashly confident this time, I did it again, during the second Sunday night Reagan-Mondale debate. I duly recorded, in my second paragraph, Reagan’s pitch-perfect quip, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I’m not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

But in my haste to write, I mentally checked out during Reagan’s closing statement. So, unfortunately, did the Gipper, as his rambling and never-finished story about driving along the Pacific Coast Highway made him appear like a doddering old man. (The transcript only partly captures the sadness of the moment). To my continuing embarrassment, I never mentioned the incident in my Newsweek cover story, titled “Reagan Wins a Draw.”

There is a moral here for all of us who will be journalistically multi-tasking during Wednesday night’s debate: As much as humanly possible, look up from your computers and actually watch what is happening.

If the rapacious demands of deadlines, fact checks, and demonstrating your cleverness on social media make full attention impossible, then avoid sweeping conclusions about the political ramifications of the debate. Remember that your reactions will not be typical of anyone other than similarly hyperactive reporters and short-attention-span political junkies.

Canvassing in Columbus, Ohio, Saturday alongside an Obama volunteer, I met an undecided voter whom I doubt will be on Twitter on Wednesday night. Kevin Scholl, a firefighter, is unsure whether he will vote for Barack Obama as he did in 2008, and he will be watching the debate for clues and cues about the president and Mitt Romney. When I interviewed him on his doorstep, Scholl was vague about what he wanted to hear to sort out his voting decision. But it is a safe bet that what animates Scholl will be far different from what intrigues political reporters.

We all tend to over-react to the debate one-liners, which the candidates spend more time practicing than a standup comic honing a new act. (In all likelihood, Stephen Douglas’ worked with his handlers on jokes before he got into the ring with Abraham Lincoln.) Some of these zingers may endure long after the 2012 campaign is over. But often these rehearsed bits of spontaneous debate humor become memorable only because they are endlessly repeated on the TV news. These one-liners are akin to Zsa Zsa Gabor, who was said to be “famous for being famous.”

In our determination to tote up round-by-round points like a boxing referee, journalists easily forget that undecided voters tend to switch off a debate, asking, “What did I learn?” and not “Who won?” The more we treat a White House debate like a sporting contest, the more that we misunderstood the role that these 52-year-old presidential face-offs play in shaping electoral behavior. At this stage of the campaign, when likely voters have already developed solid impressions of Obama and Romney, all new information is incremental rather than (buzzword alert) a game-changer.

Having spent a few harrowing Sunday nights back in the 1980s—knowing that helicopters would not carry newsmagazine pages and high-speed presses would miss their production schedules if I froze at the keyboard—I understand the deadline-driven pressures that accompany presidential debates. Reflection and original thought are hard to find amid the hurlyburly of Debate Night in America.

So the wisest course is for campaign reporters to remember that they understand everything about the debate except how it played in Peoria—and in Pueblo (Colorado) and Pensacola (Florida).

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Walter Shapiro just chronicled his ninth presidential campaign. He writes the “Character Sketch” political column for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter @WalterShapiroPD.