Lights, Camera, Debate?

How news media and new media are presenting and reacting to the GOP presidential debate

Blue Lights.  10 Camera Angles. Red Lights. 11 “Top-Tier” Candidates. Action.

Much has changed in the past 45 years since the first televised presidential debate in 1960 between Kennedy and Nixon.


Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump, center, speaks as the other candidates look on during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

The bland gray background and simple podiums of the debate with the two candidates and no live audience demonstrates a simplicity foreign to today’s television viewers.

In contrast, this debate, 45 years later, set the tone for the televised debate with a much different scene. Bright shades of red and blue, radiant lights shining on the 11 podiums and the Ronald Reagan’s Air Force One plan hung patriotically behind the stage. This prop would be essential to the overall theme of Reagan’s legacy throughout the debate. Additionally, graphics on the channel flashed “ROUND 2,” and the on-air promotions played a bell ringing implying the connotation of a sport match or fight, where boxers step in the ring to ‘duke it out’ to be the winner. The media instills the image of competition, drama and conflict before the debate even began. In the strains of journalism, this modern presidential debate is a good example of the ‘News and Entertainment’ strain of journalism.

“Our goal for this evening is a debate. A true debate, with candidates addressing each other in areas where they differ. Where they disagree — on policy, on politics, on leadership. Now, let’s begin.”

-Jake Taper, CNN GOP Debate

Throughout the debate, moderators directed their questions in a way to incite conflict and differences between the candidates. The rules of the debate ensured that attacked candidates would be given approximately 30 seconds for rebuttal time. If the stage for conflict is not clearly seen in Taper’s opening remarks and reading of the rules for the debate, it is clearly seen in this first question.

“Mrs. Fiorina, I want to start with you. Fellow Republican candidate, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, has suggested that your party’s frontrunner, Mr. Donald Trump, would be dangerous as President. He said he wouldn’t want, quote, ‘such a hot head with his finger on the nuclear codes.’ You, as well, have raised concerns about Mr. Trump’s temperament. You’ve dismissed him as an entertainer. Would you feel comfortable with Donald trump’s finger on the nuclear codes?”

-Jake Taper, CNN GOP Debate

The questions from then on continued to serve as a platform for, at some times good discussion, and at others finger-pointing and drama. Of the questions, 80% were similar to the question quoted above, meaning they mentioned the views of another candidate. Additionally, approximately 1/3 of the questions mentioned Trump and gave him multiple opportunities for rebuttal, per the rules of the debate. As a result, Trump again had the most speaking time throughout the debate with Jeb Bush following with almost 4 minutes less.

Candidate time

I could go on and on about the media’s tactics throughout the debate that “commercialize” and depreciate the value of hard news and strict political perspective; however, that was clear within the first minutes of the debate. With a record of 24 million viewers watching the first GOP debate, ratings and viewership, the media is clearly more influenced by numerical success than presenting political debates in a “hard news” format.

Since we discussed the contrast between the 1960 televised debate and modern televised debates, I was prepared for the dramatic reality of the presidential debate. Nonetheless, the more shocking coverage came from my Twitter feed. During the debate, I happened to see a friend retweet a tweet from The Huffington Post. Being curious, I clicked on the account and followed it. I included just a few of the tweets that I found in the gallery below.

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While the televised media covering the debate displayed a clear shift towards the combination of news as entertainment, the Huffington Post Twitter account displays a clear shift as well. The final strain of journalism that has begun to be apparent in today’s media is the “News with Attitude”. This is a trend towards less objective and more partisan journalism, according to Hoyt Purvis. The Huffington Post Twitter account is the perfect combination of “News with Attitude” and “News as Entertainment”. These tweets not only fail to cover the “hard” news and analysis of debated topics of an influential debate in the primary elections of the Republican presidential candidate, but they also mock the candidates with gusto.

The Twitter account created “GIFs” (graphic interchangeable formats) that focused heavily on the facial reactions of the candidates throughout the debate. Through these tweets, Huffington Post creates a clear attitude toward the liberal side in their mocking of the conservative party, sparing no candidates throughout their live tweeting feed.

While television has been the leader in commercializing politics for the sake of increased viewership, I see social media as the new trend that will continue to depreciate the value of news through entertainment-based live feeds from considerably “credible political sources”. The Huffington Post is considered the number one political blog with an estimated 110 million unique monthly visitors, according to eBiz MBA. The Huffington Post Twitter account has high 6.22 million followers.

Much has changed in the past 45 years since the first televised presidential debate in 1960 between Kennedy and Nixon. There was no such thing as a live Twitter feed running throughout the debate. There was no glamorous show and fight on the television. On September 26th, 1960, 70 million Americans watched the first-ever televised presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in front of two plain podiums and an austere set. On September 27th, 1960, the New York Times reported, “For the most part, the exchanges were distinguished by a suavity, earnestness and courtesy that suggested that the two men were more concerned about ‘image projection’ to their huge television audience than about scoring debating points.”

45 years later on September 16th, 2015, 23 million Americans watched the GOP debate on CNN between 11 top-tier candidates in front of a live audience with a massive Air Force One plane hanging in the background and brilliant red and blue lights shining on the stage-ready candidates. Then on the same night through a live Twitter feed, the Huffington Post reported to 6.22 million followers on candidates through images such as the following:

Reaction Shot

With the transition to “News as Entertainment” and even “News with Attitude” in the strains of journalism, news media and new media have completely altered the presentation of and coverage of political debates. Television seeks to create entertainment through conflict and attractive scenery, while social media seeks to entertain through comical postings at the expense of the candidates with attitude or partisan views. Can these two sources, television and political social media sources, be seen as credible news outlets with this new realm of reporting? I believe our society’s increased attachment to television media has continued to alter news reporting, especially in the realm of politics, beginning from its inception in 1960. However, with society’s new increased attachment to social media, I think we will continue to see a change in news reporting, especially in the realm of politics, as the new media continues to gain increased prominence and influence in our daily lives.

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