A College-Student Journalist’s Disappointment with National Debate Coverage

This article was written immediately after the first presidential debate on Tuesday September 29, prior to the knowledge that all future debates may be canceled due to President Trump testing positive for COVID-19.

Millions of voters sat down and watched the first presidential debate of 2020 on Tuesday night. Millions more took to social media during and after to provide their own spin of what went down. I took the opposite approach. Ignoring social media, I immediately went and turned on Fox News to hear its initial reaction to the debate. 

This was a reaction that the team at Fox had the opportunity to carefully craft, hone, and execute. Right at 11 p.m. EST, Fox anchor Sean Hannity came on the air and spoke to his audience. In doing so, he consciously chose exactly how he’d frame the debate. 

Deftly avoiding, or completely ignoring, what seemed to me to be the newsworthy differences in opinion on white supremacy, racial sensitivity, climate change, healthcare, and law and order, Hannity instead brought up his view that President Donald Trump “steamrolled” a weak and “cranky” former-Vice President Joe Biden. 

Biden’s infirmity was the very first thing Hannity brought up to his audience. In making that choice, Hannity, and by proxy Fox News as a network, signalled to viewers that the limited but contentious substance of the debate was less important than “reporting” to viewers that maybe Biden had performed poorly because it was “past his bedtime.”

Then I flipped over to CNN.

Five analysts from across the political spectrum, but most with an undeniable anti-Trump lean, brought up all of the aforementioned hot points from the debate. Within the first ten minutes of their conversation, they argued over Trump’s behavior while also calling out the pair on moments they felt were detrimental to their campaigns and potentially to the country.

My unpolished first reaction is that CNN did a great job, at least within its initial coverage, of avoiding discussing the time spent during the debate attacking Hunter Biden and Trump’s deflection on the question of personal federal income taxes, amongst other digressions that occurred within the debate. I believe CNN stuck to the key issues for the most part. 

But then again, portions of the commentators’ argument drifted, centering at times around what talking points the pair of presidential candidates failed to take advantage of. They spent time arguing over missed opportunities by Biden to attack Trump and even more time arguing about the destructive psychology of the sitting president.  

CNN then followed up this discussion with questions for Vice Presidential Candidate Kamala Harris, an interview which, as strongly as I’ll support the Biden-Harris ticket come November, I feel produced little-to-no useful analysis of either candidate. 

I wish I’d stayed put on the couch and watched more coverage from both sides, but I wanted to get my thoughts down on paper. And I didn’t want my memories of this debate to be reduced to the clips I’d see on Twitter the next day. I wanted to remember as much of the debate as I could so that I could accurately contextualize the content of Fox’s, and to a much greater extent, CNN’s post-debate coverage.

All told, both Hannity’s immaterial attack on Biden during Fox’s introduction and CNN’s initial post-debate analysis of the “success” of the candidates disappointed me. These two networks employ journalists with some of the nation’s loudest megaphones, journalists who can shape social discourse surrounding this debate for days if not weeks. Their coverage can change minds, or at the very least start conversations that change minds, and they have direct electoral impact. 

As a college journalist, with a relatively meager audience of students on just one campus, I didn’t feel that I could provide much meaningful insight into the substance of that debate, or even fairly and accurately analyze the debate or the candidate’s messages in comparison to what national outlets and seasoned journalists will produce over the coming days.

However, I did feel I had a role to play. I felt that my impact could come through urging students, even just the few hundred or thousand that read this article, to critically analyze the media and its coverage of events that affect hundreds of millions of people. If we want to see change, we need to not only become media members and voters ourselves, but we need to become more broadly entrenched within these conversations every day.

Instead of simply accepting Fox, CNN, or any national news coverage because we trust that their views align closely with our own, when we disagree with their coverage we should take on some of our own research and start different conversations on social media, in our college newspapers, or even in discussions with friends and family. I feel we need to force journalists and politicians alike to talk about what we feel is important. 

And even if that can be performed from the ballot box with this election, there is more work that can be done. So many people, young and old, have become disillusioned with politics because they feel a lack of agency. They feel that their vote doesn’t matter, that their issues aren’t being represented, or more generally, that they can’t impact politicians, the same politicians that purport to serve them and alter their everyday lives. 

My intention in writing this article is to try to inspire college students and any other readers I have to push back against the narratives that surround us, even if they’re from sources we’ve chosen to trust and align with. If the national media tell a story you feel doesn’t accurately reflect the debate for example, talk about it. If your city fails to pass legislation creating community oversight of policing, yell about it. And if you don’t feel represented, speak up.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

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