How A Bias For Drama Impacts Debate Coverage

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Since everyone else has written their “10 things to watch for in tonight’s debate” columns, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: the media likes a good narrative. One way to predict what will happen tonight is to envision what would make the best headline tomorrow.

Let’s take, for example, the second GOP debate, which now feels like it was a million years ago. Having previously been in the happy hour undercard debate, Carly Fiorina was the only new addition to the top-tier stage. Predictably (I say that because I predicted it), she won it.

I’m not suggesting the game is completely rigged. Fiorina still had to rise to the occasion. It’s entirely possible that she might have floundered. It was teed up for her, sure — and then she also hit it out of the park. The media can only encourage narratives, but the execution is still in the hands of the players. But the point is, she was the best story. She was the newest, freshest arrival — and the only lady on the stage. Journalists wanted to declare her the winner.

Fiorina would have benefited from having a third debate happen quickly. She could have built up some momentum, and the media might have liked to write the story about how she was “steadily gaining steam with a series of successful debate performances.” A month later, however, she feels like old news (live by the media narrative, die by the media narrative). We need a new storyline. Fiorina will have to work hard to shoehorn her way into the headlines on Thursday morning. That’s not to say it’s impossible. She’s a formidable debater. But this time, she’s swimming against the current, not with it.

So what would I, as a CNBC executive — or a newspaper headline writer — hope to see come from tonight’s event? Clearly, Donald Trump is the best way to get ratings, clicks, and buzz. One obvious fight the media might hope to facilitate would be between Trump and Ben Carson. After all, Carson is leading now in Iowa and nationally, and Trump has taken some shots at him — at his religion and his low energy.

It would be terrific to see these two outsiders turn against each other, but don’t count on too many sparks flying. How do you fight someone like Ben Carson who refuses to take the bait? Somehow hitting him only exhausts the hitter. Carson may be docile, but it doesn’t come across as a sign of weakness. It’s more like the Zenlike quality a kung-fu master adopts…just before killing you.

Jeb Bush would make a much more fun victim — which is why a Trump vs. Jeb fight is the other big possibility to watch for. A lot of people think this is Jeb’s “do or die” moment (how many times have we heard that?), so he might decide to come out punching, too. If Trump makes a comment about Jeb going to his mommy and daddy for counsel this weekend, expect Jeb to mention the fact that Trump’s daddy loaned him a million bucks. (Yes, at this point, it descends into schoolyard taunts.)

It’s possible others could pile on, too. John Kasich, for example, might want to take a shot at Trump (for similar reasons), and because Trump recently took credit for Ford’s decision to return jobs to Ohio, not Mexico.

Or maybe Trump won’t be at the center of attention. Maybe Jeb and [crscore]Marco Rubio[/crscore] will clash over allegations made by a Jeb adviser that Rubio is the “GOP’s Obama.” This would be a fun narrative, inasmuch as the storyline works on multiple levels: it pits protégé against mentor (so it’s personal) — and the big story could be that “Rubio has overtaken Jeb as the top ‘establishment’ pick to win the nomination.”

Presidential debates might be about electing the next leader of the free world, but they’re also about entertainment — and while I’m not suggesting this thing is scripted like a WWE production, there are a few key storylines we are all rooting to see develop. And while nothing is preordained, the fix, to some degree, is in. It’s hard to see how, say, [crscore]Rand Paul[/crscore] or Chris Christie are the big story coming out of the debate. This is true, almost no matter what they do or say.

The best journalism often comes down to good storytelling. We’ve been doing it since the days when we sat around the campfire, and we continue to do it as we sit around a glowing box with images. We crave stories to tell. But sometimes stories need a little nudge. If this is one big reality show, then it’s naive to think all the developments simply happen organically. You can expect the “producers” to manipulate things — to introduce some much-needed drama and temptation along the way.