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October 30, 2014

Scholars who study communications recognize that media bias exists – not to right or left, Martha Coakley or Charlie Baker, but to the revenue producing business model. Drama, scandal, and conflict produce viewers/readers/listeners which beget advertising dollars. That helps to explain why so much of the recent debates deviated from issues of importance to voters and the future of the commonwealth.

As for me, I “don’t want no more of the crying game.”*

Tuesday night’s debate question regarding when was the last time each candidate cried seemed invasive and voyeuristic to me. Media debates have this quality: no matter the question, it is part of the game that the candidates answer in the form instructed them by the media questioners (more on this in a bit). It does seem to me that the “crying” question could probe into the intimate details of a person’s life that he or she has no obligation to share with the general public. It’s none of our business.

It wasn’t just the crying question either. I took notes of three recent gubernatorial debates and saw a good deal of show biz larded in with the public service. The debates included one  jointly sponsored by WGBH and the Boston Globe televised on October 21; one televised by NECN on October 27; and the final one sponsored by WHDH-TV, WCRB-TV, and WBUR radio on October 28.

Let me acknowledge at the outset that viewers got a good deal of substance in the debates. There were questions on the economy, public administration, taxes, education, casinos, etc. that provided insights into each candidate’s governing philosophy and plans. Part of the business plan too is to produce the memorable question and there was some success there: on Ferguson, communities of color, what idea each would like to ‘steal’ from the other. There were questions that had to be asked, like allegations that Baker engaged in a pay to play scandal in New Jersey, or that Coakley declined a tough investigation of Sal DiMasi – though they didn’t need to be asked over and over again (some of this comes from candidates questioning each other though). Denouncing SuperPAC ads -- is there any #mapoli devotee that can’t mouth the answers along with the candidates by now?

I find it harder to justify, though, starting a debate with the pay to play question to Baker and then a question to Coakley about an embarrassingly dumb Poltico article that referred to her as “Martha Chokely.” The October 29 debate started with promise on the economy, then went right to the accusation that Coakley had gone easy on DiMasi and then on to pay to play. I’ve been somewhat suspicious of early questions since a moderator opened a debate by asking Elizabeth Warren the Native American question – an issue no voter but nearly every media type cared about (it had conflict, drama, and scandal all in one issue).

Sometimes the ends of debates aren’t any better as in “lightning rounds.” We’ve had questions about smoking marijuana, your favorite late night television host, and of course, the crying game. We’ve had questions that require thought like whether you say yes or no to driver licenses for undocumented immigrants (moderator: “yes or no,” “yes, you have to”) or in-state tuition for undocumented students (“yes or no, yes or no, yes or no, yes or no, yes or no”). Thinking takes time and provides terrible optics – there’s no thinking on television!

What got left out amidst scandal, conflict, and drama? Only matters like what qualities each candidate would seek in a head of DCF, the cost of college and the low rate of state aid to Massachusetts higher education, how to prepare for the potential of environmental disaster due to global warming, the pension system, and other matters we will leave to the next governor and legislature.

There is a Commission on Presidential Debates that has worked quite well over the years. Maybe it is time for something similar in Massachusetts.

* “The Crying Game” was a 1992 film for which Boy George sang the lyrics of the song of the same name.

Addendum:

Now I see on Twitter some in media saying in effect, it shouldn't be hard to track down this fisherman with the two sons. That opens a different area- the fisherman shared a private moment with Baker never expecting the pain of his family to become part of the dominant media narrative at the end of a close campaign. And that strikes me as wrong and an invasion of the privacy not only of the candidate, but of the fisherman and his sons. These questions are wrong.

gubernatorial debates, crying, Martha Coakley, Charlie Baker

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