With all due respect to my colleagues in the media, I am pretty sure that most of them have, over the past week, collectively gone out of their minds. Let’s review the last seven days in American politics: At Wednesday’s debate, President Obama made no obvious gaffes, but he did look tired, stuttered occasionally, and generally failed to be as combative as his supporters would have liked. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney, who has run one of the most reactionary campaigns in recent American history, presented himself as a centrist. He also got in a few good zingers and looked well rested.
None of this seemed all that dramatic while it was happening. But following the debate, many of my fellow journalists, liberal and conservative alike, reacted as if Obama had behaved on camera like Charlie Sheen—as if his performance, rather than being merely flawed, was somehow fundamentally appalling, even offensive. Over the past week, this storyline has completely taken over an election that was previously about two very different philosophies of government. And, if the new polls are accurate, a not insignificant percentage of Americans have switched their votes since last Wednesday—meaning that they, like many journalists, have apparently decided that a few too many “uhs” by Obama on national television should override all the substantive issues facing the country.
In short, it’s an insane situation. Here’s a theory as to why it happened.
As everyone knows, over the past four years, journalism has changed a lot: the news cycle has quickened even further, cable news has grown increasingly important, and Twitter has become a key journalistic outlet. But while these changes are well known, one of the things we don’t talk about very often is that there are value systems implicit in different forms of journalism—and when some forms of journalism ascend and others recede, the values of the journalistic community as a whole can shift.
Probably the biggest value shift that’s taken place in journalism over recent years has been the increasing centrality of argument to the minute-by-minute lives of writers and reporters. Of course, the give-and-take of debate has always had a cherished place in journalism, whether on op-ed pages or in opinion magazines. But with the rise of blogging and especially Twitter, journalists are spending more and more time immersed in the world of retorts and clever one-liners than ever before. Today it’s inarguable that the journalistic world places a much higher premium on debaters’ skills than it did even four years ago. Last week, we were reminded that Mitt Romney has those skills in abundance. And journalists—not surprisingly, given the current values of our profession—rewarded him handsomely for it.
Barack Obama, on the other hand, doesn’t just lack these skills; everything we know about him suggests that his intellectual makeup pulls in the opposite direction. Before he became a politician, Obama was a long-form writer. And during his political career, he has specialized in writing and delivering elegantly constructed, thoughtful speeches.
Not surprisingly, like many people who gravitate toward long-form writing, Obama’s strengths don’t translate very well to the world of debate, or at least the kind of debate that our new journalistic culture of instantaneous opinion values so highly. For one thing, when he speaks extemporaneously, he pauses frequently and often says “uh.” That sound drove journalists nuts during the debate last week; but where many of my colleagues heard lack of preparation, I heard the tic of a writer wanting to self-edit, trying to buy himself the time to carefully measure his words.
Where many of my colleagues heard lack of preparation, I heard the tic of a writer wanting to self-edit, trying to buy himself the time to carefully measure his words.
There’s also, as Frank Bruni pointed out in an excellent New York Times column this weekend, Obama’s tendency to acknowledge self-doubt and nuance—another tic of the long-form writer. “Four years ago,” Obama remarked during his closing statement last Wednesday, “I said that I am not a perfect man and I wouldn’t be a perfect president. That’s probably a promise that Governor Romney thinks I’ve kept.” Such statements are anathema to successful debate. But to my ears, it was an elegant and genuine assertion of presidential humility.
To be clear, rapid-fire debate is often a valuable form of discourse—for both journalists and politicians. It can expose logical flaws in arguments. It can help people to see their own ideas and the ideas of others with greater rigor and clarity. And it can be wildly entertaining. But we also shouldn’t be blind to the fact that the values implicit in debating are a double-edged sword. Debate, as we saw last Wednesday night, sometimes over-rewards the glib one-liner, or incentivizes stubborn misrepresentation.
Politicians and journalists have different missions, of course, but the danger here is the same for both: that in overvaluing debating skill, we will crowd out other values that are also important. We should not allow this to happen. Not in journalism, which is why we still need great magazines that publish long-form writing. And not in politics either—especially when we’re doing something as important as picking a president.