I will be watching the debate with a stiff drink and through splayed fingers

(Update, 10:45 p.m.: I feel better now that the debate is over, and the alcohol definitely took the edge off. Good combination!)

(Update, 3:01 p.m.: Andy Borowitz is way ahead of me.)

Tonight is the first presidential debate. I will probably watch at least some of it, because it feels like a civic responsibility — after all, part of voting is to be informed, and this will be one of just three opportunities to see Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump go one-on-one, allegedly debating the issues.

But, let’s face it, it’s really just a big television show — one that’s hard to win, but easy to lose.

It’s easy to lose because most of us (and I’ll include myself) really aren’t listening to the candidates talk about issues, assuming that’s what they’ll be doing. We’re watching — watching to see if Hillary coughs, or Trump grabs his crotch, or either one gets flustered. And if we’re listening, we’re listening for gravitas and our own comfort, not necessarily expertise.

Besides, we’re choked with instant partisan commentary on a scale we’ve never seen before, with someone — anyone — in the news media determined to establish that their view should be the narrative.

As Jim Rutenberg writes:

Take the second presidential debate between President Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter in 1976. Max Frankel of The New York Times pressed Mr. Ford on the Soviet Union’s dominance of Eastern Europe, and responded with incredulity as he invited Mr. Ford to clarify his remark that the Soviets were not dominant there. The focus the next day was on Mr. Ford’s politically catastrophic geopolitical misstatement, not on his inquisitor, Mr. Frankel.

Had that exchange happened today, political operatives and Twitter provocateurs surely would have found a way to make it about Mr. Frankel — whose follow-up was actually an attempt to offer Mr. Ford a lifeline, he told me. And some American media voices would have sought to dispute the facts on the ground in Eastern Europe (perhaps even on a Russian-financed American network like RT).

Meanwhile, there will be too much focusing on images.

The old line about the first Kennedy-Nixon debate — that those who watched on TV thought Kennedy had won, and those who listened on the radio believed Nixon had won — has been disputed, but what is true is that Kennedy looked great while Nixon looked like he’d just gotten out of the hospital (which he had). (Incidentally, today is the 56th anniversary of that first Kennedy-Nixon debate.) Did it make a difference? Well, as Roger Ailes will tell you, images matter.

I think Trump is dangerous, and nothing I see tonight will change my mind. But that doesn’t mean I’m not immune to a polished TV presence. So I’ll watch heavily fortified with alcohol. I just hope I don’t have to stock up for the next six weeks.

 

 

 

 

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