Tonight’s Winner Depends As Much on the Media As It Does on the Candidates

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Political scientist John Sides tells us four important things about tonight’s GOP debate. I’d focus on the last one:

4) The media’s reaction to the debate may matter more than the debate itself. Most people won’t watch the debate. Heck, most Republican primary voters won’t watch the debate. So, how do people form impressions of who wins a debate? The news media plays a crucial role.

In 2012, I discussed a noteworthy experiment by Kim Fridkin and other scholars at Arizona State University. During the 2004 campaign, they showed people some footage of the third presidential debate; or the debate, plus 20 minutes of post-debate commentary on NBC; or the debate, plus 20 minutes’ time to read commentary on CNN.com….Those watching the debate tended to think that Kerry had won, as did those who read analysis on CNN. But those who watched the NBC postmortem had the opposite impression.

….The news media does a lot of interpretive work for us — framing events in particular ways, telling us how to interpret these events, and so on. Those judgments are sometimes explicit and sometimes phrased in passive voice constructions (“Senator Smith was widely seen as victorious”) or sourced to, well, others in the news media (“Many commentators saw Senator Smith as victorious”). So even if you don’t watch the debate, you may be able to tell which candidate, if any, will benefit — and whether that candidate is someone other than Trump. Just read the news on Friday.

This is absolutely true, and it’s even true in a meta way: news commentary affects the way other news commentators view the debate. Conventional wisdom can congeal very quickly after a debate, as pundits get themselves into sort of a vicious circle of not wanting to be seen as the odd man out. It’s peculiar that this matters to them, but it very plainly does.

And there’s not much you can do about it. That’s why I make it a point to turn off the TV and write my debate wrap-ups before I hear what anyone else has to say. I’ve found that other commentary affects me, mostly by making me a little nervous about saying what I initially thought. That’s stupid, but it’s human nature. So now I write in isolation and then publish. Then I turn on the TV and start reading my Twitter stream. If that affects my conclusions, I put it in a separate post. But at least the very first one is set in amber, maybe prescient or obtuse, but genuinely mine.

In any case, I agree with Sides and the research he cites. You can see public reaction to debates change surprisingly quickly between the insta-polls, mostly taken before the media weighs in, and polls taken in the day or two afterward. The latter are overwhelmingly populated by people who didn’t even watch the debate, but heard about the winners and losers from wherever they consume news. And that’s the impression that sticks.

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is the first thing despots go after. An unwavering commitment to it is probably what draws you to Mother Jones' journalism. And as we're seeing in the US and the world around, authoritarians seek to poison the discourse and the way we relate to each other because they can't stand people coming together around a shared sense of the truth—it's a huge threat to them.

Which is also a pretty great way to describe Mother Jones' mission: People coming together around the truth to hold power accountable.

And right now, we need to raise about $400,000 from our online readers over the next two months to hit our annual goal and make good on that mission. Read more about the information war we find ourselves in and how people-powered, independent reporting can and must rise to the challenge—and please support our team's truth-telling journalism with a donation if you can right now.

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