The Digital Journalist
Mea Culpa
October 2004

by Ron Steinman

In my September column, "Anchors Away: The Debate Debacle," I made two statements about the presidential debates which I want to retract. Toward the end of the piece I summed it up by saying, "Surely the debates are as bad as television gets and not worth our time." I called the debates, "boring and usually useless proceedings."

Well, I am wrong. In this deeply divided country, separated by light years spiritually, morally and politically, the debates do matter more than I believe any seer would have thought.

The difference between President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry is stark in every aspect - physically, intellectually, and emotionally, all tempered by deep-seated, immoveable beliefs. In the one debate between Vice President Dick Cheney and Senator John Edwards, we can only begin to measure the differences.

Before the debates, there were fears that people would react only to the physical, how each man looked and made his statements, gave his presentation, answered questions. Television is the villain here and we should not overlook its role and deny its effect. After everyone removed what I call the physical from his or her analysis, ultimately substance prevailed. For many it will continue to do so. For others it will not. After all, TV is a visceral medium and the grunts, grimaces, groans, smiles, and shifts in posture do have an enormous effect on many viewers.

Something else should be clear. The debates are created for television. They are an event for the small screen for viewers at home. No one who watches the debate in the hall will ever get its full impact. For years at NBC News, I advocated that we never have a reporter in the hall, but stick one in front of a TV set in another location. I knew then as I know now, that a person will come away with a different sense of what each candidate said, how he said it, and how he performed. Therefore, do not trust what the instant analyst who has been sitting in the hall says when an anchor calls upon him or her immediately following the event. I trust more someone seated in a studio than one standing in a slowly emptying auditorium. I trust implicitly anyone doing analysis from home. Moreover, reporters should go with their gut about what they see on the small screen, and not take anything from the spin doctors who are, as we know, on a mission to convince you of how they think.

So, for the record, I was wrong. These debates are very important. I, however, stick by my other premise. There is no need for major anchors. The moderators we have are doing very well, thank you. They are plainspoken, direct and firm. For that we are fortunate.

In the end, watch the debate that remains. Do it without the aid of spin or analysts. Know that the debates are not boring, and they can count.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, a regular contributor to The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.