There'll be plenty of superfluous commentary and "analysis" leading up to and following the first presidential debate this Friday between Barack Obama and John McCain. The candidates will be cautious and armed with a few zingers for purposes of the five-second sound bite. The outcome will be inconclusive. And even if a "winner" is declared, as was the case when John Kerry cleaned George W. Bush's clock in all three debates in 2004 (even Fox News had to admit it) it won't matter because the army of spin-meisters and hucksters who darken our television screens will make sure that what we witnessed with our own eyes won't be trusted. We must leave it to the "experts." CNN's stable of pundits is particularly heinous because the network is free of the stigma, unlike Fox, of being a Republican Party mouthpiece -- but it is.
The expectations have been so lowered for the 72-year-old McCain, and the political discourse so cheapened with personal attacks, that if he manages not to drool over himself the pundits will hail him as a champion debater. Obama, on the other hand, has to play it very cool because if he shows the slightest sign that he actually has blood coursing through his veins he's sure to face criticism for being an angry black man.
The media will flatten the debate by subjecting viewers to talking heads who chat up the theatricality of the candidates, critiquing their stagecraft, their ability to emote on cue, and their body language, as do the most self-absorbed theatre critics. Any sign of life, emotion, or intellectual acuity from either candidate will be quickly extinguished under the banal banter of media stars who are promoting themselves over the candidates and over the miracle of American representative democracy.
The media will fragment the debates by showing sound-bites and clips out of context and juxtapose them in ways that serve their entertainment value and give good lead-ins to the cut-aways to commercials. The debate itself will be masticated and mauled in a thousand different ways allowing for each side to "spin" the chopped-up content in ways that would be nonsensical if seen in context. This fragmentation will drive home the fact that neither candidate's words can be "taken out of context" because there is no "context" for them to be taken out of.
The media will filter the debate by denuding it of substance. If Obama wishes to explain his views of the complexities of the current financial crisis or Congress's bail-out of Wall Street he can be spun as "wonkish" or "difficult to follow" or "unclear." And if these charges fall flat he can always be labeled "elitist" because he used words with more than two syllables: "Just look at Obama, he thinks he knows more than us!" The filter will have to be thick this time because in this debate we have a charismatic younger man who was a star law student at Harvard versus an elderly guy who is known for his temper. The candidates must be, at all costs, put on an equal playing field like two competing flavors of vanilla ice cream at a county fair taste-off. To do otherwise, by acknowledging their profound biographical differences as positive attributes in a pivotal election, would be to betray the corporate media's obsession with faux "balance."
Finally, the media will frame the entire debate as an epic struggle between two competing philosophies of the world: Liberal versus Conservative. They will hold up McCain as an embodiment of all that is "good" about conservatism in the abstract, taking pains to ignore the disaster of the last eight years of "conservative" Republican power in Washington. McCain will be framed as a heroic, "small government," tax-cutting "maverick" who is "pro-life" and has strong ties to the military, the Bible, and the flag. Obama will be framed as the definitive "liberal" who loves to "tax and spend," wants your kids to go to a dilapidated public school filled with immigrants and minorities, and will take your guns and kill babies.