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Media and debates

09/28/04 12:00AM By Barrie Dunsmore
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(Host) Commentator Barrie Dunsmore takes a look at the upcoming Presidential debates and notes that media reviews of these encounters can often be more important than the debates themselves.

(Dunsmore) The televised Presidential debate that sticks in my mind was between President Gerald Ford and Governor Jimmy Carter in 1976. As the diplomatic correspondent for ABC news, I was assigned to analyze what the two men said about foreign affairs - in Carter's case, to see how he would deal with the Russians - and in the case of President Ford to listen for anything new about the issues of those days: d tente and arms control.

As everyone now knows, Mr. Ford made a major blunder. He said there was, "no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." As all of Eastern Europe at the time was behind the Iron Curtain and all of the countries behind that curtain were Soviet satellites, on its face the statement was totally bizarre. And, as I recall, I said so in my post debate analysis. But at the time I also felt that Ford had not lost touch with reality but was trying to say that, in spite of being under the Kremlin's thumb, the people of those countries were not blindly accepting Soviet rule and would love to get out from under it if they could. But that's not what he said. And what he did say became not only the headline of the debate but the fodder for editorials and pundits, who cited it as proof that Ford was not up to the job. Did that cost him the election? I don't know. I suspect that hardliners within his own Republican Party may have hurt him more - but certainly it did not help.

For me, the Ford case raises the broader question: How important are the media reviews of these debates? The evidence indicates media reaction is significant. For instance, polls initially suggested that Al Gore had won the first debate with George W. Bush in 2000. But that changed when media coverage portrayed Gore as petulant and patronizing - judgments not based on anything he said or the merits of his arguments. In the 2000 election campaign, the national media did not seem to like Al Gore, and this was reflected in their assessments of him, including how he did in the debates.

The debates ahead, especially the one on foreign policy this week, are crucial for John Kerry. Throughout the campaign, major news organizations have often faulted Kerry for not offering a coherent Iraq policy. So, if the debate reviews are that Kerry again failed to present a plan for Iraq that is not different and better than the President's, he could be in serious trouble.

The fact is, more people vote than watch the debates - and those who don't watch them will be influenced by the media's version of events. This is truer than ever today, when, even with four major networks carrying the debates, people still have hundreds of cable options - and Fox will be broadcasting baseball pennant races and playoffs. Come to think of it, having Fox out of the mix might actually be a break for Kerry.

This is Barrie Dunsmore.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.
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