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Presidential Debates Explored by Nationally Known Journalists at GU

October 22, 2012 – A panel of journalists, including NBC News Chief White House Correspondent Chuck Todd and Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker, discussed this year’s presidential debates and their effectiveness Oct. 19 at the university.

The News Literacy Project’s “Presidential Debates: Performance, Spin and the Press” looked at clips from this year’s debates and pondered their importance in each candidate’s campaign.

Joining Parker and Todd on the panel was Al Hunt, Washington editor at Bloomberg News.

Robert Siegel, senior host of NPR’s All Things Considered, moderated the event, sponsored by Bloomberg, Qualcomm and the Washington Post.

Founded in 2008, The News Literacy Project is an educational program that uses veteran journalists to help middle school and high school students sort fact from fiction through activities, exercises, videos and reports.

Candy Crowley Correction

Hunt said he thought it was fine that in the first debate, moderator Candy Crowley’s corrected Mitt Romney when he said President Obama failed for two weeks to call the Sept. 11 assault on the American embassy in Libya a terrorist attack.

Crowley said that Obama had declared the attack to be the work of terrorists the day after it happened, but the issue is still being argued about among journalists and the public.

Published reports indicate that Obama's press secretary confirmed that it was an act of terrorism on Sept. 20.

“I think what Candy Crowley did was perfectly appropriate and I don’t know why people are having such hissy fits about it,” Hunt said.

Parker disagreed.

“I think it was very dicey and chancy for her to do that,” she said. “...It was a complicated issue to reduce to that sort of correction on the one hand, which left the impression among TV viewers that Romney was just completely wrong.”

Alpha Dogs

The panel also expressed their disappointment at the point in the second presidential debate when Romney and Obama’s circled each other and used what Siegel called a “Hey, you want to take this outside moment.”

Parker and Todd said they thought the moment was off-putting for women voters.

“Women don’t like the conflict and that sort of suggestion of perhaps violence,” she said. “It looked very much like an arena.”

Todd said the “alpha-doggish” moment highlighted a dangerous caveat to the current debate system.

Substance vs. Style

“What’s interesting there though is that the irony of televised debates is that not one of them has ever been won on substance,” said Todd, also political director for NBC. “I would argue every single presidential debate has been won on style and not substance and that is a potential flaw in the system.”

But Hunt said televised presidential debates are necessary in an election year, but shouldn’t be the decisive factor for a campaign.

“I think that we’re much better off having debates than not having debates,” he said.

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