Here’s something you probably don’t know: Viewers of the first presidential debate between Al Gore and George W Bush in 2000 thought Gore won. Here’s Bob Somerby’s summary of the polls conducted immediately after the debate (emphasis added):
In fact, instant polls of viewers credited Gore with a rather decisive win. How substantial was Gore’s apparent success? According to NBC’s post-debate poll, 46 percent said Gore had won, 36 percent picked Bush. At CBS, the margin was wider; it was Gore, 56-42. CNN had a seven-point spread, 48-41. Only ABC had it close; in their survey, 42 percent picked Gore, 39 percent favored Bush. (For the record, more Bush voters watched the debate. Gore won the instant polls anyway.) Adding to the unanimous verdict, Time polled viewers on October 4-5, the first two days post-debate; their sample picked Gore, 51-37. In fact, Gore “won the debate” in these five polls by an average margin of 9.6 percent. In these, the five major instant polls, Gore “won” by a serious margin.But after the debate, reporters and pundits -- driven by their transparent dislike of Gore and egged on by the Bush campaign -- began obsessing over Al Gore’s debate body language. He sighed too much, they said -- and they said it over and over again, playing clips of Gore sighs that hadn’t bothered debate watchers in real time. They devoted far more attention and contempt to Gore’s supposed theatrics than to, for example, Bush’s obvious lies about his tax plan. In doing so, they turned Gore’s debate win into a loss by telling those who hadn’t watched that Gore had behaved boorishly -- and eventually convincing many of those who had watched of the same thing. (Here’s George Washington political scientist John Sides explaining how that works.)
That’s how, to this day, “Gore lost the first debate by sighing” is conventional wisdom. Everybody thinks debate viewers recoiled at Gore’s inappropriate behavior. But it just isn’t what happened. What happened was a media mugging of Al Gore. And, it is important to understand, the primary culprits weren’t FOX News and Rush Limbaugh; it was CNN and MSNBC and the Washington Post and the rest of the so-called “mainstream” media.
Now: This is exactly what is happening to Joe Biden. The CBS poll conducted immediately after last night’s Vice Presidential debate gave Biden a comfortable win. CNN’s poll found viewers pretty evenly split, with Ryan holding a four point edge in a poll with a 5.5 point margin of error and a debate sample CNN says skewed Republican. But even before the debate was over, the media -- again, I’m not talking about FOX and Limbaugh, I’m talking about the supposedly-neutral “mainstream” media -- pounced on Biden, claiming his body language in reaction to Paul Ryan’s comments was inappropriate and cost him the debate. Here’s a representative sample of the nonsense.
Notice how the attacks on Biden’s demeanor were framed: It’s Gore’s sighing all over again! The article doesn’t mention, of course, that Gore won the debate in question. Nor did any of the countless reporters and pundits making that comparison last night and this morning. When they compare Biden’s laughter to Gore’s sighs, they mean “Candidate’s body language turns off voters, losing the debate.” But remember: That isn’t what actually happened in 2000, and it isn’t what happened last night. Viewers thought Gore won in 2000. They thought Biden won last night. The media, pundits & Republicans then peddled a bunch of nonsense about Gore sighing to turn his win into a loss -- just like they’re doing to Biden now. Only this time around, they point to a precedent: Gore’s sighs. That’s a precedent, all right -- but for their behavior, not Biden’s.
Just for the record: The notion that it’s rude to laugh or smirk at an opponent’s misleading statements is absurd. It’s rude to make misleading statements. The fact that the news media doesn’t see it this way tells you a great deal. It’s why, for example, politicians are able to go on television and lie to millions of viewers: They know the journalist interviewing them won’t take offense at being lied to and won’t call them on it.
Also for the record: There is absolutely no value in Gloria Borger or David Gergen or Wolf Blitzer or whoever speculating about candidates demeanor or the “effectiveness” of their performance. Viewers can assess body language, demeanor and tone on their own; they don’t need to be -- and shouldn’t be -- told how to respond to such things. They need help understanding the issues, figuring out which things were true and which were false; which policies are likely to work and which are likely to fail. That’s how the news media can bring value to their audience. That’s what voters need, not circular speculation about how performances will “play” or who “won.” It’s the public’s job to decide those things, not the media’s.