Debates Mark the Starting Line for the Media’s Race Through 2020

Debates Mark the Starting Line for the Media’s Race Through 2020

Indeed, some campaign operatives say live viewership of televised political events can be less important than whether their candidate secures a viral moment. Feisty exchanges — or cringeworthy gaffes — can live for days on cable news talk shows and Twitter GIFs.

Barnstorming in Iowa and South Carolina still matters. But candidates who have embraced media exposure, like Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have seen firsthand television’s ability to boost name recognition and voter interest.

“What I think is ironically benefiting television is all the ancillary support and interest kindled by social media,” said Charles L. Ponce de Leon, a historian and author of “That’s the Way It Is,” a history of television news. “Rather than competing, social media and legacy television are working synergistically. That in turn compels candidates to appear on legacy television to enhance or correct the previous news cycle.”

The election coverage will also be a major test for individual network journalists, whose role as campaign referees has become more complicated amid Mr. Trump’s attacks on the news media and the increased polarization of the news.

A move by Democratic leaders to exclude Fox News from hosting debates turned into a major issue in the party primary. NBC raised some eyebrows by including Rachel Maddow, the MSNBC opinion host, among its moderators this week, though the network noted that she previously moderated an MSNBC debate in February 2016. (The other moderators are Savannah Guthrie, Lester Holt, Chuck Todd and José Díaz-Balart, of Telemundo.)

Mr. Kaplan, of the Norman Lear Center, offered a broader concern: that the collaboration between political parties and financially motivated television executives may not necessarily leave the public better off.

“Why is it that a network gets to monetize our election?” he said. “It’s a financial transaction between democracy and the media industry. Politics has effectively merged with entertainment, because both these entities are in the attention-capture business.”

But will Mr. Kaplan be tuning in on Wednesday?

He laughed. “Of course.”

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