A NOT SO GREAT DEBATE

November 19, 2007

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by Charles Bierbauer

Diamonds or pearls? Is that the question?

I’m not exactly crushed that I missed this moment in television journalism. Amid the mountains of information and opinion heaped on us this political season, it is but a pebble. But I am dismayed with the back story of manipulation that has emerged since this past week’s debate in Las Vegas. It suggests it may be easier to draw to an inside straight in Las Vegas than to expect straight journalism.

If you missed it, too—hey, there are more debates this political season than there are episodes to a TV drama—a UNLV student sought to ask the Democratic candidates about nuclear waste but was persuaded by CNN producers to ask Sen. Hillary Clinton about her preference in jewelry. For the record, candidate Clinton equivocated—“I want both.”

Politically, this was trivial. Journalistically, it’s unforgivable. CNN has let its production values, in this case preferring a light-hearted question to end the debate, intrude on its journalistic reputation. How many times have we heard Wolf Blitzer proclaim the network has “the best political team on television”? Yes, I’m chagrined that this is my old network and that it is also under fire this week for not candidly identifying the political leanings of its “commentators,” as though we might mistake long-time Clinton advocate James Carville for non-partisan.

The diamonds or pearls decision was undoubtedly made by unseen producers who, having vetted all the questions that participants were required to submit in advance, decided to go for politics light. Residents of Nevada are inclined to worry about nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain. Network producers from New York or Washington seem more inclined to think about Tiffany’s.

In one sense, we’ve been here before. A high school student at a 1992 MTV forum asked Bill Clinton: “boxers or briefs?” Clinton, who equivocated on a lot of campaign questions, barely hesitated in answering “usually briefs.”

The fault today may lie in the hype and hyper nature of heavily televised campaigns. There are more networks clamoring for their share of the action and attention than existed when I first hit the campaign trail for CNN in 1984. There are more candidates clamoring for their share of network attention in a campaign that began a couple years ago and still has a year to run. (Candidates, ask yourselves if you don’t share the blame for extreme breadth and frequent lack of depth in the coverage.)

In journalism classes, we tell students that there are really no dumb questions, if they are trying to elicit a useful piece of information. I’ve certainly constructed a few that were less than eloquent or well informed. There is also no reason to think that journalists necessarily ask better questions than might the voting public. After all, we present ourselves as the public’s voice. So why try to muzzle that voice? No self-respecting journalist would let an official dictate which questions may be asked.

The political debate has been substantially tarted up by competing networks to keep viewer interest over the protracted series of events. A simple dialogue among journalists and candidates doesn’t cut it any more. Now the stage is all bespangled. The candidates and questioners are introduced like rock stars. I rather liked the YouTube gimmick CNN used earlier this year. True, the couple of dozen questions were culled from thousands of YouTube submissions.

So if this is the way televised debates are going to go, I’d like to pre-submit my questions for the next debate in South Carolina in the hope that we can bring the discussion back to substantive matters.

On gun control: Over/under or side-by-side?

On higher education: Clemson or Carolina?

On public health and nutrition: Mustard, tomato or pepper and vinegar?

I won’t want to miss that debate!
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Charles Bierbauer covered presidential campaigns from 1984 to 2000 for CNN. He is now dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university. He is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.com.

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WHO’S RIGHT? WHOSE RIGHT?

November 12, 2007

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by Charles Bierbauer

Sunday school was challenging this week. When a pastor/priest/minister in a South Carolina congregation says “Jesus would be opposed to the death penalty,” he’s likely to encounter mixed opinions. “I know there may be different views in this class,” ours said, nodding toward one individual filling the role of class barometer.

A second challenge: “Jesus denounced the use of military action. No matter where we are in Iraq, Jesus would have opposed it.” Murmurs. Not all in agreement.

These were not political statements so much as an assertion that in a post-modernist 21st century, we may not find absolute truths. That in wrestling with religion, many—though certainly not all individuals or denominations—wrestle with a lot of subjectivity.

Consider what the so-called “religious right” is wrestling with in seeking a presidential candidate to back in the 2008 elections. Once a bastion of faith-driven Republican conservatism, the right has turned downright pragmatic.

Pat Robertson, who himself ran for president in 1988, endorsed Rudy Giuliani this past week,

Despite the former New York mayor’s anything but conservative views on abortion and gays, Robertson said “Rudy Giuliani is, without question, an acceptable candidate.”

Dr. Bob Jones, III, who heads the fundamentalist Bob Jones University in Greenville, says he is “completely opposed to the doctrines of Mormonism.” Yet Jones endorsed a Mormon candidate, Mitt Romney, last month, because “this is all about beating Hillary.”

The Rev. Jerry Falwell and Senator John McCain made peace last year, before Falwell’s death. They found more in common in their support of the war in Iraq than in the spat that had divided them for years.

Without belaboring the semantics—worth a whole column in itself—the religious right, or religious conservatives or religious conservative Republican right, is not showing the clout it wielded in support of George W. Bush or the strength it derived from Ronald Reagan. Its former heavy hitters are diminished in relevance. Falwell is dead. Robertson is 77. Jones has matters to deal with on his oft-beleaguered campus.

There is an apparent desperation carried in the baggage of the current Bush administration and the strong possibility of a Democratic victory a year from now. The prospect of spending the next eight years in a political wilderness has made some religious conservatives remarkably ecumenical.

Not that we should take as a matter of faith the existence of a monolithic religion-inspired vote. That would mean we have turned a blind eye to the world around us. There are relatively few single issue voters, those who consider a candidate’s position on only one issue, such as abortion.

As evidence, Giuliani comes out ahead of other Republican candidates, according to a recent survey of religious constituencies by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Overall, Pew found 32 percent support for Giuliani, a Catholic; 19 percent for Fred Thompson, a member of the Church of Christ; 17 percent for McCain, a Baptist; 10 percent for Romney, a Mormon. Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, drew seven percent.

Giuliani held a sizeable lead over Thompson and McCain among “white Catholics” and “white mainline Protestants.” Among “white evangelical Protestants,” Thompson led Giuliani, but only by 24 percent to 23 percent. The poll was taken prior to Robertson’s endorsement of Giuliani.

For the record, the Pew survey found Hillary Clinton well ahead of all Democratic candidates in all categories, including “black Protestants” and those “religiously unaffiliated.”

In many ways, political votes are acts of faith. We only know what a candidate promises to do, not what decision will be made in a time of challenge and crisis. Absent a clear choice for that religious right, some conservative voters may go to the polls in this election glancing at a wristband they wear that poses the question: What would Jesus do?

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Charles Bierbauer covered presidential campaigns from 1984 through 2000 for CNN. Bierbauer is currently dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the opinions here are his and not those of the university. He is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.com.

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POLITICS BY THE NUMBERS

November 6, 2007

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by Charles Bierbauer

Republicans and Democrats in South Carolina have one thing in common.  Three of ten voters in each party are undecided or unsure about their votes in the coming presidential primaries, according to the latest Winthrop/ETV Poll.

There is also one great difference.  While 29.6% of likely Democratic primary voters are undecided, a greater number—33 %–say they would vote for Hillary Clinton, a more than 10-point margin, and widening, over her closest rival, Barack Obama.  If not yet convincing with all those undecideds, the recently conducted poll suggests  Senator Clinton may be hard to catch.

In contrast, the 29.9% undecided are the largest contingent among likely Republican primary voters beset with indecision.  At a distant 17.9%, Fred Thompson  trails the undecided.  A statistical blanket covers Thompson and two other Republicans—Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney.  It’s a more uncertain race, but it’s tempered by the lack of overt enthusiasm for the Republican field.

Those of us who dislike the media’s tendency to cover politics as a horse race, eschew the polls taken a year or even six months out.  They are just as likely to reflect the wavering whims of an unfocussed electorate as any defining trend.  Who’s running?  Oh, yeah, I like her.  More likely: never heard of him.  Remember what was happening six months out, Thompson was not even in the race.  Well, Tommy Thompson was.  Remember him?  But not Fred Thompson.

All polls are snapshots taken at a moment in the campaign.  Winthrop polled in October.  With the first primary voting now just two months off, the snapshot is coming into focus.  Trim and crop from the bottom.  The eight and ten-candidate fields are no more than four-a-side now, and some of them are fading from the picture.

Winthrop’s Dr. Scott Huffman, who directs the poll, suggests the almost singular focus for candidates in both parties is to demonstrate they can beat Senator Clinton.  “She is the candidate a lot of establishment Democrats feel can win back the presidency,” Huffman says.  Not Obama.  Not Edwards.

And among Republicans? Romney, Huffman says, needs to persuade South Carolinians “that Giuliani is not the only one who can beat Clinton.”  Giuliani “needs to convince primary voters that he is the only one who can beat Clinton.”

What might change South Carolina voters’ minds?  How the candidates stack up in Iowa and New Hampshire can influence some.  John Edwards and Mitt Romney certainly hope that is the case in Iowa where they have invested heavily.

Win in the early states—even just beat expectations–and get what former President George Bush called “the big Mo.”  That’s “mo” as in momentum and “mo” as in money.  The two are inextricably linked.  A candidate gaining momentum in Iowa and New Hampshire is also likely to have an easier time raising funds to spend in South Carolina.  Lose momentum, lose the flow of money, and soon you head to the beach.

South Carolina voters are paying attention.  An equal 76% of likely Republican and Democratic voters told the Winthrop pollsters that they are following the campaign “very closely” or “somewhat closely.”  Not quite up close and personal, though.  Although at times it may seem like there’s a candidate on every corner, only 13% of Democrats and 12% of Republicans say they have actually met or seen a candidate in person.

Get ready, then, for a media blitz.  It will likely be measured in the distracted days between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and all out in the brisk first days of January.  The prize goes to those candidates who can move the numbers out of the undecided column and into theirs.

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Charles Bierbauer covered presidential campaigns from 1984 through 2000 for CNN.  Bierbauer is currently dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the opinions here are his and not those of the university.  He is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.com.

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