Does the Media's Romney Comeback Narrative Matter?


An hour after Wednesday night's debate ended, Alex Burns of Politico tweeted, "Folks obsessed with crying media bias should take a good look at debate coverage. Press loves a dogfight more than a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g."

Indeed, by the time of Burns's tweet, the supposedly left-leaning media had officially deemed the debate a complete, utter, thoroughgoing, calamitous, humilitating, and, above all, game changing defeat for Obama. And I agree with Burns's reading of this verdict. In fact, last week I predicted that a "Romney comeback narrative" was coming--that journalists determined to report fresh wind in Romney's sails would find reasons to do so. And I said one reason likely to be found was the first debate.

I'm not saying pundits were imagining Romney's victory over Obama. I wrote in that piece that Romney "on any given night has a chance of outshining Obama" in debate--and that's what happened.

Still, the reason I wrote that was because of something else I wrote in the piece: Obama is actually not a great debater and Romney is actually a good one (as my Atlantic colleague and campaign rhetoric connoisseur James Fallows has also argued). And the fact that the conventional wisdom was otherwise--the fact that Obama was overrated and Romney underrated--naturally worked to Romney's advantage. It meant that, whatever Romney's actual margin of victory, the margin could be magnified by journalists hungry for a new campaign narrative. If expectations for the debate had been set realistically, the media would have had a harder giving us, for example, the headline that Politico itself gave us this morning: "Debate Grand Slam Resets Campaign."

Does this really matter much? I mean, is what the media says after the debate nearly as important as what viewers get from the debate itself? New York Times polling guru Nate Silver reported something interesting today: An online poll conducted by Google found that people who were asked during last night's debate who was winning were much less likely to answer "Romney" than people who were asked who had won shortly after the debate.

In fact (if my math is right) the proportion of people answering "Romney" grew by 35 percent after the debate and the proportion answering "Obama" dropped by 53 percent. This is only one poll, and, anyway, I don't understand its methodology clearly enough to invest great faith in it, but one plausible interpretation is that, yes, the instantaneous, near-unanimous, high-volume media verdict to which Burns alluded was important. What mattered wasn't just what people saw on TV, but what experts told them they had just seen. And presumably the media's rendering of the story will matter even more for the many people who didn't see the debate.

It will be fascinating to see the "new Romney" get fleshed out in the coming days. In my piece last week I mentioned four new memes that might emerge as journalists built their new campaign narrative. One of them--Romney surprises us with his debate performance--has now fallen into place. And another of the memes--what I called "foreign policy switcheroo"--got a push a few days earlier from a New York Times lead paragraph reporting that Obama is "suddenly exposed on national security and foreign policy, a field where he had enjoyed a seemingly unassailable advantage over Mitt Romney in the presidential race."

Presented by

Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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