Media lion s den awaits candidates

September 24, 2008 12:00 am

, NEW YORK, September 24 – John McCain and Barack Obama enter a media lion’s den in their first presidential campaign debate this Friday — and today’s high-definition TV will give them nowhere to hide.

In an already heated White House battle, the first of three debates will be a crucial moment where audiences around the world finally see the Republican and Democratic candidates go toe-to-toe.

"This is the focal point of the campaign," Christopher Simpson, professor of communications at American University in Washington, told AFP.

"There really is only one point larger than these debates in terms of public attention and that is the election itself."

Broadcasters contacted by AFP would not predict audiences. But 62 million people watched the first debate in the 2004 race and with the US economy in turmoil, that figure could rise significantly, analysts say.

In addition to saturation coverage from television giants, world news agencies like AFP, and major newspapers, expect an invasion of citizen journalists and bloggers.

For example, the networking and blogging service Twitter has teemed up with user-generated cable television network Current to combine a broadcast of the debate with live blogger posts, known as "tweets."

Detractors describe the clash in Oxford, Mississippi, which is to focus on foreign policy issues, as a pseudo debate with little room for real exchanges.

"It’s an important thing to understand that from the candidates’ viewpoints these are heavily staged theatrical performances," Simpson said.

But at least voters, following months of campaign ads and soundbite-obsessed media coverage, will get 90 minutes of the two rivals live, at length and unedited.

For the first time, large numbers will also get this in high definition.

HDTV technology transmits pictures of such clarity that viewers literally see their candidates in a new light.

Richard Hanley, journalism professor at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, said McCain, who is 72, is especially at risk in the HDTV glare.

"The high-definition camera will amplify any facial flaws or his age. High definition doesn’t leave anything uncovered. If he gets angry or tense, as he tends to, it will be very clear."

Variety, the entertainment industry publication, estimates that about a third of US homes have the rapidly spreading HDTV technology.

"Next to the candidates, there’s little doubt who will be the most important people at the upcoming presidential debates: the makeup artists," Variety said.

During the debate itself, every major US network will carry the same footage, which is shot by one camera team and shared in a pooling agreement, said NBC representative Jeremy Gaines.

The media scrum will start immediately after, when analysts, instant pollsters and star anchors have their say.

"We’ll be covering it all day and all night long," Gaines said. "For 90 minutes, everyone will look the same, but then it will be the hosts who shape the coverage."

Sandy Genelius, at CBS, said that star presenter Katie Couric will anchor coverage from Mississippi, while ABC has scheduled two hours of live coverage.

Jim Naureckas, at the media watchdog Fair, said post-debate analysis is usually superficial — tackling how candidates looked or sounded, rather than what they said — yet crucial.

"The real winner is not the one thought to have won the debate right after, but the one that is said by the media to have won the debate," he said.

Verdicts will appear even earlier on the blogosphere, where commentators of all political persuasions will be trying to define what happened.

Look out for the "all important battle of the enduring sound bite, which could shape the conventional wisdom of who won and who lost," said the Moderate Voice, a political website and blog.

"A good debate performance can generate Big Mo and in a tight race such as Campaign 2008 the impact could be significant."


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