Good Letter, Wrong Address

Mark Thoma has an An Open Letter to ABC about the Presidential Debate signed by Brad DeLong, Kevin Drum, Henry Farrell, Eric Alterman and many others. 

The debate was
a revolting descent into tabloid journalism and a gross disservice to Americans
concerned about the great issues facing the nation and the world….
For 53 minutes, we heard no question about public policy from either
moderator. ABC seemed less interested in provoking serious discussion than in
trying to generate cheap shot sound-bites for later rebroadcast. The questions
asked by Mr. Stephanopoulos and Mr. Gibson were a disgrace…

I agree.  The only thing the signatories got wrong was where to send the letter.  The letter should have been addressed to the American public.  After all, this debate, which came in the flurry of all the tabloid journalism of the past several weeks, was the most-watched of the 2008
presidential campaign.  The public got what it wanted.


Despite whether I agree with your conclusion, it's hardly fair to say that the public got what it wanted. The public had no idea what questions were going to be asked at the debate or that the content would be so base. Indeed, it would be more interesting to see time-coded ratings throughout the debate rather than the Nielsen rating. An equally possible explanation is that many people feel that the Pennsylvania primary is make-or-break time for Hillary and were interested to see if she would pull a rabbit out of a hat to remain in the race. Another possible explanation is that the debate is the last between the two candidates. And so on and so on.

Trey, maybe but in the last several weeks the media have pushed the "bitter" comment, Obama's reverend story, and the Bosnia story repeatedly - thus Gibson and Stephanopoulos simply pushed what the rest of the media pushed. Do you really think the media doesn't know what sells?

"The public got what it wanted."

In order for that to be true, wouldn't the public had to have known before tuning in that the debate would be a farce?

And how would they have known that? This wasn't Fox or CNBC.

Read the letter "trying to generate cheap shot sound-bites for later rebroadcast." Hmmm... now who would want to rebroadcast something the public didn't want?

Everyone complaining should explain why the media focused on the trash talk to begin with.

Don Hewitt, the director and producer of the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960, said ABC’s structuring of the questions was an acknowledgment that a debate entails “a big dose of show biz† and “trying to keep an audience.†

“When you’re in television,† Mr. Hewitt said, “that’s your job.†

"The public got what it wanted."

As an economist, don't you study things like the consumer's lack of access to information on the product to be consumed? Some people paid money to see
"Manos, the Hands of Fate." Were they really signalling Hollywood, "More like this, please?"


I agree with your premise that ABC and the two moderators are trying to deliver a product that appeals to their audience.

The mistake you are making is to therefore assume that the product they delivered did indeed achieve that goal - that is indeed taking "efficient market thinking" several light-years too far. There are no arbitrageurs here pushing debates closer to their "optimal design", there are no competing products allowing consumers to switch to other debate designs, and so on. All ABS has is some bad market research, experience based on very few data points in a fast-changing environment, and the moderators' and producers' gut feeling for what people might want. Thus the forces pushing us closer to an "efficient" product are somewhere between weak and non-existent, and what we get in the end is almost entirely based on the perceptions and preferences of the moderators and producers. Letting them know ex-post that their product sucked is entirely appropriate.

Let me add that you may well be right - probably the debate design was exactly what the audience wanted. But there seems to be little evidence either for or against this claim, which seems based on your prior about people's preferences and an excessively strong belief in the power of competitive forces. On the other hand, all evidence we have so far indicates that a substantial subset of the audience hated it.

Alex, just out of curiosity, what do you make of the WSJ's take on the Gibson/Obama exchange regarding the cap gains tax? Is this an outlier from the rest of the debate, do you think it was based on such a faulty premise that it's useless, or do you have some other account for it?

WSJ's take here:

Jonah Goldberg's much shorter summary: "He conceded the premise that revenues go up when you cut capital gains taxes. But he said it would be worthwhile to raise them nonetheless as an issue of "fairness" because some people are making too much money."

"facing the nation and the *world*"
Is that a US presidential election or did I missed something?

Assume for a moment that you are a producer at ABC, you've been given some air time and told to produce a debate. As you begin you keep in mind that ABC’s main goal is to make money, today and indefinitely into the future. So far they have been pretty good about doing this so there’s a decent amount for you to play with. In order to ensure that your debate will satisfy current advertisers and attract future advertisers you hire some fancy; commentators, set designers, make-people, light people, and all the rest that actually do the show. Now it seems as though many of you would stop there. You’ve got George; you’ve got the fancy set; so let’s just shoot from the hip when it comes to the questions. It also seems like many of you would not last very long as producers. Some of you however would say ok, I’ve got George, I’ve got the set, the make-up will be perfect and the lighting will wow them, but people watch a debate for†¦.. the debate, so let’s make sure we’ve got something that will keep them, and bring them back. Surveys are cheap, I’ll take a thousand, focus groups are a little more expensive, I’ll take a hundred. Now I know what America wants, I will do my very best to deliver; if I don’t people won’t be back to ABC for the next debate and I won’t be ask to produce it, or anything else.

So for those of you who doubt that competitive forces are at work, I guess you’ll be watching the next debate, you certainly deserve it.

Now letting the studio know after the fact that the debate they produces was horrific is not without its merits. However I’d guess that upwards of 99.9% of the 13 million that watched send no letters because they were pleased / not so displeased that they’d write about it.

If you want to make a difference in what you get before the fact, take the 10 minutes to do the surveys when the telemarketer calls.

The public got what it wanted? Not hardly. Not even close.

The whole thing is a farce. The public are sheep and politicians are corrupt looters. If only we could speed up evolution.

I find it interesting that the thrust of your argument seems to be "the public got what it wanted" as though that is the best arbiter on how to decide anything. You may (rightly) deride limits on freedom (say gun control), limits on tariffs and subsidies (don't protect steal, let the Caribbean export sugar, remove farm subsidies) but these are popular programs with broad public support. And if you disagree with these particular examples, surely there are many more. Maybe the top ranking show between the two candidates would be Fear Factor or some other sort of mass-produced schlock, but is that really the best way to decide on the format and content of a presidential debate?

Look you egghead Canuk, policy is boring . I suspect the Queen will welcome you back over the border into her arms should you become too disgusted with the "American public". My complaint is that the debate wasn't interesting enough to make "The Soup!" Just kidding (except about the Soup).

Trey - "it's hardly fair to say that the public got what it wanted. The public had no idea what questions were going to be asked at the debate or that the content would be so base"
Just because the public didn't know what it was getting doesn't mean the producer didn't know what the public wanted.

Zetland - "You are taking the efficient market idea too far."

L2P - "As an economist, don't you study things like the consumer's lack of access to information on the product to be consumed?"

Commenter - The mistake you are making is to therefore assume that the product they delivered did indeed achieve that goal - that is indeed taking "efficient market thinking" several light-years too far"

But perhaps I should have said "...competetive forces are working..."

I am sick and tired of you guys pontificating on how I (the American public) think or what I want. You're no more psychic than the next guy. We had no idea what would happen when the debate started and I for one wanted to here some substance on issues other than personality and the usual "what's bRITTANY DONE TODAY CRAP" It's not what I want and I turn it off every timeit comes up. You can't blame us for NEWS reporting decaying into this tabloid trash. It's like being blamed for voting for Mugabe when his the only name on the ballot. other than PBS where can you go for Broadcast journalism that means something?

They may share some overarching goals (say, universal health coverage or a reduction in the troop level in Iraq) but how they will go about achieving these goals (methods) and how exactly they envision them (mandated care? immediate withdrawal?) is a fecund area for discussion especially for the many, many millions of individuals who aren't spending their time on political blogs every day hashing this out for themselves.

I'd agree, but you picked the two topics that have been done to death in the previous twentysome debates. I'd like to here them talk about trade policy, biofuel mandates, or any of a host of issues that haven't been discussed endlessly on their debates.

They did discuss withdrawal from Iraq-- both agreed that they would withdraw within six months even if the generals said it would be a disaster, because the president sets policy, not tactics, and civilian control is important. (The answer I'd expect from any President, really.)

The capital gains question and the tax pledge was interesting. I'm not sure how either plans to balance the budget with new spending and without raising taxes on those making less than $200-250k, as they pledged. I'm interested in how Sen. Obama apparently claimed that he's looking into a doughnut system for payroll taxes, taxing amounts over $200k but not $95k-$200k.

I can't believe the "outrage" being generated by this debate. Without fail every other Democratic debate has been one softball question after another. From the shoolmarm to Chris "I love Obama" Matthews the previous moderators have been pathetic. If it wasn't for Saturday Night Live making the MSM see the extreme bias towards Barack "the untouchable" Obama we would have even more "diamonds or pearls, Hillary" questions. The issue of charactor is completely relevent and between Barry's bizarre associations and Hillary's "duck and cover" lies the public has every right to hear their responses to these topics. I would challenge anyone to define "any" major policy differences between the two. Lets see, cut and run in Iraq, higher taxes for the "rich", "free healthcare", open borders, etc...

What a crock. If ABC had really given the people what they wanted, they would not have even televised the debate. Instead they would have shown somthething like "CSI Meets American Idol."

Your whole post is "post hoc" and pointless, but to entertain it for a moment: The people are to blame. Let's assume they receive the Wisdom of Tabarrok and understand. What next? Tell ABC about it, obviously.

So, what. You're criticizing Thoma for cutting to the chase?

I'd agree, but you picked the two topics that have been done to death in the previous twentysome debates. I'd like to here them talk about trade policy, biofuel mandates, or any of a host of issues that haven't been discussed endlessly on their debates.

I'd agree with that.

Two points:

a.) Not everybody watched those previous debates. I believe this last one was the most watched of all. So, for whom have those issues been debated into the ground?

b.) I think that kinda gets at what some critics, including myself, get upset with the media for--they seem to think it's about them. "But we've already talked about this, wah!" Well, yes, but not everybody was paying attention and, really, another five to ten minutes on going over each candidates Iraq policy or whatever isn't going to kill anybody but can make the million or even more voters who didn't get a chance or didn't choose to tune in to a debate in Nevada a tad bit more informative on those issues.

My point is that just because the average person didn't know what the show was going to be about doesn't mean that the show's producers didn't know what the average person wanted.

They're called surveys, and focus groups. I may be going out on a limb, but I'd bet TV stations have/did used them to figure out what people wanted in that show.

Maybe they didn't get exactly what you wanted, but you watched, and by the sounds of it, you'll be watching again.

If I went to a store and bought shoes I saw in a Nike commercial, then said I didn’t like them, then went back and bought 6 more, what would you think? I’d think the shoes were in demand. Maybe their not my ideal shoe, because they’re made as one size fits all, but I must prefer them to going without, correct?

Sleazy candidates make for sleazy debates.

ABC News' web site registered close to 17,000 negative comments concerning the moderation shortly after debate. So, maybe the public didn't get what it wanted after all.

Alex shows who the condescending elitist really is!

Intentional or not you just put that whole nonsense into some real perspective.

Unfortunately, Alex is right. This is what many of the people want to watch and discuss. Even on a relatively "high brow" blog like this, notice which posts get the most comments.

Then again, if we want to improve the quality of debate questions, it's probably more effective to complain directly to the organizers than to try to indirectly affect them by changing preferences of the American Public. Maybe, just maybe, if the media focus on better topics, then the American Public will, on average, pay more attention to those topics.

This is what many of the people want to watch and discuss. Even on a relatively "high brow" blog like this, notice which posts get the most comments.

Some of us think that the norms of debate moderation and news gathering will effect the quality of all future political arguments, which is ultimately a bigger issue than the results of this one election.

Fantastic post: Dr Pangloss would be proud!

It's all showbiz and the claim is always that they are giving people what they want. Wrong.

MSM and Hollywood are in decline. Yes, it's right to lump them together. Box office and viewer/reader numbers are in decline across the board and have been for years.

Folks, there are two possibilities here. Either lots of people care about 'character' questions (as well as policy questions), or they don't. If people care about character questions, then ABC's questions were relevant and appropriate, and Thoma/Drum/DeLong don't have any basis for their complaint. Or, if people don't care about such things, then they will certainly ignore such questions in their voting decisions, and there's no reason for Thoma/Drum/DeLong to be particularly upset about ABC's use of its airtime to show stuff that people don't care about.

Either way, there's no particular reason to complain. Unless, of course, you understand that people do care about such things, and you realize that your candidate didn't handle those questions well at all. This is just a bunch of partisan Obama fanboys misrepresenting their partisanship as moral outrage. Dog bites man.

It sounds like the elitists are just getting upset because their candidate is no longer getting preferential treatment.

Wasn't this the only debate on major network? The others were on cable or the internet. I think that would give it a ratings edge.

Alex's assertion sounds plausible but is not supported with any data. I suppose Alex's point could be applied to George Bush. When we last tuned in during 2004, we turned the dial to Bush. So why complain? The market has spoken.

I doubt the media will reform. My guess is that it will just keep getting worse. There is a shot, though, that journalists will eventually be replaced by bloggers, which would probably be an advance.

The thing about journalists is that they don't actually have expertise in anything. Their authority derives only from the monopoly that news organizations previously held over public discussion. That monopoly is being destroyed and with it perhaps the influence of journalists. The world will be much better when nobody cares one way or the other how Charles Gibson would frame the debate. I would rather yell at Alex, who at least is rational if insufficiently empirical.

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