There was a lot that was extraordinary about Wednesday night's third presidential debate in Las Vegas, not the least of which was Donald Trump's assertion that he, and not the electorate, would decide who won the election on November 9th. But looking beyond the content of the debate itself, there is much to be learned about the media and its problematic role in modern elections.
Watching the circus-like event and surrounding programming on CNN it struck me that the network's decision to build an open-sided outdoor studio on the campus of University of Las Vegas was only the most obvious clue to the fact that the coverage would have less to do with journalism than with showmanship and marketing.
As the long day of rotating panel discussions progressed, the mob of chanting ("Lock her up!"), banner waving ("Christ is the Answer!") students and photo-bombing agitators became more and more intrusive in the on-air program. It got to the point where the audience at home could barely make out what the hosts and commentators were saying. Behind the scenes studio directors were going nuts trying to pick camera angles that avoided the most offensive of the background signage.
CNN's solution to that was to give each of the on-stage personalities a second ear piece to add to their rock-star IFB/microphone combos so they could at least hear each other; the effect was that they looked weirdly like subjects wired up for some sort of lab experiment. The noise and distracting sign wars continued unabated, because that was an important part of the overall theatrical experience.
This raucous off-stage performance was not incidental; it played the part assigned to the chorus in a Greek tragedy. While the protagonists on the stage act out their defiance of the limits imposed on them by the gods, the chorus, below, shouts out the hopes, fears, and judgment of the ordinary citizenry. In the plays of Sophocles, the chorus represent the judgment of history. But the CNN presentation was not tragedy; it was farce. The role of the chorus was accordingly reduced to bathos.
The protagonists in this pre-game coverage consisted of the host and moderator and a roster of commentators and surrogates that changed from time to time throughout the day. The role of the moderator was analogous to that of a referee in a prize fight: to interfere as little as possible while keeping the action going.
The television surrogate in its current form is a new phenomenon.
The debate itself, of course, took place in a closed auditorium in front of a smallish group of VIPs carefully selected by the event sponsors, the university, and the candidates themselves. Oddly, this audience was forbidden to utter a peep (although the occasional guffaw could not be suppressed). They were there simply for ambiance, and the real audience was presumed to be folks at home, watching their television sets and laptops and tablets in the tens of millions. Their chanting and banner-waving was to be heard and seen in the ethereal world of social media, and this was where the real judgment of history would work itself out during the debate and in the subsequent days.
Commentators for this kind of event are chosen for their expertise and relative independence--they cannot be in the employ of either of the candidates' campaigns, though most of them have extensive partisan political experience. Some are experienced journalists, as well. For example: Van Jones has been an economic advisor in the Obama administration; David Axelrod also served in the Obama administration, as a senior political advisor; David Gergen is the dean of the group, having served presidents from Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford through to Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton; Gloria Borger is a political correspondent with long experience on the Washington frontlines.
And then there are the so-called "surrogates." Kayleigh McEnany, a young, self-described conservative pundit with an impressive academic resume, was a regular contributor to Fox News and Fox Business shows before moving over to CNN for the debate gig. Jeffrey Lord was a political operative in the Reagan and Bush administrations, and has just published a book called What America Needs: The Case for Trump.
The television surrogate in its current form is a new phenomenon. These individuals are not so much supporters of their respective candidates as paid avatars: their job is not to simply express support, but to represent, verbatim if possible, the position of the candidate and the campaign managers. In the metaphor of CNN as theatre, they are actors. They do not express opinions; they follow scripts.
The English philosopher John Hobbes (1588-1679) drew on the theatre to do some deep thinking about surrogates and their ethical world. He used terminology that deliberately reflected the relationship between an actor and an author or playwright to ask questions about their ethical relationship.
Clearly he said, an actor in a play bears no moral responsibility for actions carried out on stage; he or she is merely performing a role. But can the actor as surrogate for another in real life also claim immunity from moral culpability? Can a soldier who obeys orders, or a lawyer following a client's instructions, or (he might have asked) a TV surrogate standing in for a political candidate, escape moral responsibility for what they say or do?
The answer can only be "no," because, unlike the stage actor, the surrogate's actions and statements have real impact in the real world. The surrogate bears a share of the moral responsibility for words and acts of the "author" he or she is paid to represent. The surrogate cannot simply assume an identity on camera and then hang it up in a dressing room locker and take a taxi home as his or her "authentic self." Surrogacy changes a person. The role is sticky; it leaves a residue, which will accumulate over time.
Surrogacy is a dangerous, morally hazardous profession. For the jovial, white-haired Jeremy Lord, it's probably too late to make a change. But for 28-yer-old Kayleigh McEnany, here is some advice: find a different job.
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