Debate Analysis Has A Conflict Problem

October 9th, 2016 by Matt Friedman

hqdefaultThe tens of millions of American households who keep the TV on after the Presidential Debate or go online for analysis will be a part of something that is otherwise not allowed in journalism or PR. Consumers looking for perspective will receive it from individuals who are walking conflicts of interest.

It’s one thing for a campaign strategist whose livelihood depends on one party or the other to provide insight as part of news coverage to explain why a campaign or a candidate does one thing or another, as part of a strategy. But when it comes to analysis of debate or speech performance – how a candidate delivers a message and connects with an audience – those one-side-or-the-other political types are asked their opinions even though they fit the definition of a conflict of interest.

It’s so predictable. After every debate, the “Democratic Strategists” say that the Democrat “won” and the “Republican Strategists” say that the Republican “won.” The analysts gets to keep their business with campaigns from their selected party and the news organizations can pat themselves on the back for “balance.” But did the audience get to take away anything interesting, valuable or even credible?

It is past time for news organizations to add objective, apolitical analysis into the most-consumed coverage. One suggestion is independent PR professionals, who spend their days counseling clients on message delivery and audience connection, but don’t have a business imperative to favor one party over another.

That is how it works when that type of analysis is needed otherwise by news organizations. During the General Motors Ignition Switch scandal in 2014, for example, I had the privilege of serving as the go-to analyst for multiple news organizations, including on the day when the company’s CEO was in front of Congress. I was asked by each newsroom if I did any kind of business with GM. Only because the answer was “no,” I was able to provide independent commentary. Nor was I paid for my time by any of the news organizations, unlike many of the post-debate analysis Americans see in 2016, many of whom are hired to provide particular partisan points of view (sometimes, with a non-disparagement agreement in hand about a candidate they are supposed to be analyzing).

The other exception to the rule made for debates is “The Spin Room.” It is perhaps the only time that journalists are encouraged by their bosses to seek B.S. rather than avoid it. They know they are being fed lines of bull and they eat it up. Day-to-day, they are encouraged and look forward to finding independent sources of credible analysis. But after a debate, the herd mentality leads them to a place where those they interview are required to talk glowingly, deserved or not, about whomever they represent.

As consumers, we accept a double standard. For many, it seems, they just want to hear someone of perceived authority speak well of their “team” and ill of the other. But for the growing segment of independent voters, it’s past time for more independent voices, not on anyone’s payroll, to provide some much-needed rational perspective.

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