TV debate follow-up: How the emphasis on 'narrative' distorts the Obama-Romney race

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Image Credit: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/GettyImages

The foremost TV media cant word is “narrative”: Nearly every talking head uses it a lot, to talk about the daily rhythm of the news cycle and how it is interpreted by the media. The problem is, in addition to its tiresome overuse,  it imposes a framework on an election campaign that may or may not be accurate. On these terms, who was the biggest winner in last night’s first Presidential debate? In media terms, it was Gov. Chris Christie, who had gone on TV last Sunday and told any and all that come Thursday morning, there would be a new narrative to the Presidential campaign after his man Mitt Romney proved himself worthy.

And that’s exactly what’s happened. Although there’s a lot of fact-checking being done about the facts and figures thrown around in Denver last night, what’s being established is a new way to keep the cable and network news analysts earning their paychecks: Oooh, look, two days ago we thought Obama had it in the bag. Now the doughty challenger has shaken things up: It’s Romney’s to lose!

The reviews are in. On Fox and Friends on Thursday morning, co-host Steve Doocy said with feigned astonishment, “Even Van Jones has weighed in and said Obama got hammered!” Guest John McCain told the hosts that “if it were a [boxing] fight, they would have stepped in [and stopped it].” On MSNBC’s Morning Joe, guest Jon Meacham ascribed Obama’s slack performance to the idea that “no one has spoken to the President in that way for a long time.”

Romney has “gained control of the narrative,” said Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski, using the inevitable word.

To be sure, Obama made a key media mistake. As I wrote last night, he looked at the moderator more often than his opponent, whereas Romney looked at Obama. This had the result of making Romney seemed forthrightly challenging, trying to engage the person he was debating; Obama was looking off at an angle, neither at Romney nor us — visually, he came across as though talking to moderator Jim Lehrer, or simply debating the air.

By contrast, Romney didn’t only come across as more engaged, he also used the rhetorical device of repetition and the nervy device of constantly shifting away from the positions he’s taken before. Obama points out the $5 trillion tax cut that Romney hasn’t explained the details of? Romney’s assertion that he’s not going to change Medicare? Sure, the next-day analysis can point out that these were misleading.

But it doesn’t matter in the impression that was left in viewers’ minds: That Romney took command on that Denver stage. Romney and the folks advising him know that you can switch things up at any point, say anything that will shore up people’s hopes or make them nod in agreement, even if you may not believe in what you’re saying, or if what you’re saying contradicts what you’ve been saying for months. Obama declines to play that game, but he also declined to aggressively challenge that game at its fundamentally shaky premise, to his obvious peril.

Romney won the debate against Obama for the same reason Fox News wins the ratings race with MSNBC: It’s about changing the story, changing the subject, all the time, while continuing to hammer home the message that the “folks,” as Bill O’Reilly likes to call us, are getting bilked by the current administration. Whereas Obama (and in my example, MSNBC) persists in arguing the positions out to their logical conclusions, sticking to principles that are “narratively” dull because they require time and nuance to lay out.

On Thursday morning, Morning Joe used the graphic “Debate and Switch” for its post-debate analysis, and that phrase was accurate: The media needed a new narrative to keep its heads on all channels chattering, and the Romney campaign provided the media with a new chapter that can now be written, scrapped, and re-written all over again.

And you know what? The narrative is going to change again the evening of Oct. 11 with the Vice Presidential debate. Get ready. I’ll play the role of Chris Christie now: The morning after the Biden-Ryan debate, there’ll be a new narrative — Biden will wow the TV audience and make Ryan look like a smug wonk. Whether or not that’s true almost doesn’t matter: It’s the twist in the heretofore accepted story, the narrative, that counts, right?

Twitter: @kentucker

For more: Presidential debate review: Romney dominated from early on


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