Punchless Debating

Punchless Debating

By Dale Herbeck

In an attempt to explain Shannon O'Brien's decisive defeat last week, commentators have suggested that she may have lost her bid to become the first elected female governor of Massachusetts in her final debate with Mitt Romney. More specifically, it has been argued that O'Brien's campaign died when she defended lowering the age of consent for an abortion to 16.

Rather than entering this fray, I want to consider a broader issue: The way in which mass media portray political debates. This is a worthwhile exercise, because debates create a unique opportunity for meaningful public argument. Uninterrupted by ads, uncontaminated by gimmicks and special effects, political debates offer voters a chance to see a serious and sustained encounter between the candidates.

The most common metaphor used to describe debate, unfortunately, does not reflect this idealized vision. No doubt because they feature one of the few direct confrontations between the candidates, political debates are widely described with metaphors involving boxing. This is an old image, as candidate Theodore Roosevelt cast himself as a boxer when he announced his willingness to run for president with the following proclamation: "My hat's in the ring. The fight's on, and I'm stripped to the buff."

Simple boxing metaphors permeated media coverage of the O'Brien-Romney debates. The series of five debates was characterized as a five-round bout. Romney had the upper hand in the first round in Springfield, but commentators called the bout a "draw." There were some "hard hits," but no "low blows." In sharp contrast, it was suggested that Romney was "pummeled" during the second encounter in Worcester. When Romney "let down his guard," O'Brien managed to "knock him off balance" with a series of decisive policy jabs.

Confusion rained in the third and fourth rounds as the addition of third-party candidates made it impossible for either of the major candidates to score points. In the "final round," however, both of the "heavyweights" came out swinging in the hopes of landing the decisive "knockout punch." When O'Brien failed to connect, she was roundly denounced for being too aggressive.

At first glance, it is tempting to discount this imagery as shoddy journalism. Under closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that these boxing sports metaphors have the power to structure the public's perception of political debates and the candidates.

While sports metaphors are not entirely responsible for the sorry state of our political discourse, these metaphors work to undermine meaningful dialogue in several ways. Most notably, the boxing metaphor displaces discussion of the policy arguments. Instead of trying to sort out the issues, commentators use boxing metaphors to neatly summarize what transpired. These accounts are satisfying, in large part because they reduce sixty minutes of complicated argument down to a simple narrative. In this instance, neither candidate landed the decisive blow. Romney was staggered, O'Brien failed to land the decisive blow, and there is really no need to know anything more about the big fight.

Furthermore, the repeated use of boxing metaphor creates an unfortunate obsession with the knockout punch. Given the power of the boxing metaphor, it is not surprising that coverage before a debate dwells on the possibility of a knockout. Since a decisive blow seldom happens, post-debate coverage focuses on why neither candidate was able to connect.

Red Smith, a famous sportswriter, understood the broader significance of sports. In one of his columns about President Nixon, Smith noted, "One measure of the stature of sports in the American scheme is the extent to which sporting terms are employed away from the playing fields."

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that these metaphors are meaningful only in that they demonstrate the significance of sports in American culture. By blending politics and sports, these metaphors transform political events into entertainment spectacles. While this makes for good copy, it undermines public participation, discourages substantive discussion of the issues, and reinforces the existing political order.

Dale Herbeck is a professor and chairman of the Communication Department.  

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