Americans should call in Paxman

It is one of the most hypocritical media charades of all. Last Monday, reporters from across the world flocked to Boston for the first of the big presidential debates, which took place on the Tuesday night. Next Wednesday, they will magically materialise in Winston-Salem, North Carolina for the second. For the third, the dateline will be the week after that in St Louis. And here's the hypocrisy of it all: of those hundreds of hacks purporting to write authoritative, on-the-spot reports on these crucial debates, only a handful actually saw or will see the candidates perform in person.

What happens is that the hacks watch the debates - just like the 60 million or so who saw them last Tuesday night - on television: but in big halls with rows of monitors, rather than in their homes. Together, they note each other's reactions, and thus reach a consensus over who is performing best. Then they are ushered into press rooms to hear each side's spinners say how they outperformed the other. Literally within two minutes of last Tuesday's debate ending at 10.30pm Boston time, for example, Boy George's camp was telling the hacks that Slugger Al had lied no fewer than 27 times; Gore's was more conservative, accusing Dubbya of telling just 16 porkies.

Boy George was literally sniffing by the end of the debate - it was past his 9.30 bedtime and he had a cold - while Gore was still punching away verbally, and would doubtless have been going 24 hours later had the anchorman not finally called a merciful end to the fight. Yet, very speedily, a media consensus emerged. Boy George had not collapsed in tears or become totally incoherent against Al's relentless slugging, and so had won the debate. Boy George's camp had manipulated media expectations so successfully - portraying their man as a hopeless novice (just 12 televised debates under his belt) while Gore is a positive Cicero of debating wisdom (with 43) - that if there were no knockouts or blood on the floor, Dubbya would be proclaimed the winner.

Because this is the closest presidential election since JFK beat Nixon in 1960, the reporting itself is thus becoming a factor. If you read or listened to the media throughout the spring or summer, you would have assumed Boy George was virtually anointed as president. Then Al made his predictable surge, only for Boy George to start making a comeback in mid-September. By the time the two met on Tuesday (only for the third time, incidentally), Gore was pulling away from Boy George again - with a Zogby poll putting him ahead at 46-41 nationwide.

The truth about last Tuesday's debates, whatever you read elsewhere, is that Gore was the unequivocal winner on points. No knockouts, no appalling gaffes, certainly - but Gore was mercilessly in command from the very start, showing up the ineptitude not only of Boy George, but of the so-called "moderator", Jim Lehrer. Boy George snuffled away, at one point seeming in danger of simply drying up with confusion and incoherence. He mispronounced Milosevic, even asking Lehrer (36 minutes after his usual bedtime, mind): "What was the question?". Lehrer dropped the ball so many times that one longed for a Paxman to wipe the smirks off both men's faces.

That, indeed, is now the danger for Gore. He is so superior to Bush in debate, frequently sighing audibly with condescension, that he all too easily comes over as the arrogant and phoney know-all that he actually is. Dubbya's painfully obvious intellectual inferiority, in contrast, could bring him a sizeable decent-guy sympathy vote. Gore came into Tuesday's debate with themes that he managed to work in ad nauseam: first, he would tie up Medicare in "an iron-clad box", and second, he said, Boy George's proposed tax cuts would mainly benefit only the nation's wealthiest 1 per cent.

"New question," announced Lehrer.

"I hope it's about wealthy people," Boy George responded, inexplicably. A Paxman would have shot back: "Why is that, Governor Bush?" - but Lehrer let the moment pass into oblivion for ever. The 90-minute debate then speedily deteriorated into the kind of worthy-but-boring show in which Lehrer specialises, a dismaying prospect for Winston-Salem and St Louis.

So far, then, Gore has an unmistakable lead on substance, less so on likeability. Last Tuesday, he showed a mastery of facts, figures and policies; the only minus for Gore was that, under brighter lights than Dubbya, his make-up made him look wan and pasty. But Boy George is still struggling, and can only now hope to edge Gore out by coming over decisively as the more sincere and likable man.

Both camps immediately met early on Wednesday 4 October to map out future schedules based on overnight reaction polls to the debate. The Republicans can see clearly that Dubbya cannot now win on policy, and his only hope lies in exploiting character differences.

Roughly 40 per cent of the electorate is for Gore and the same for Dubbya; it is the remaining 20 per cent who will decide. The small-print of the polls, however, continues to look rosier for Gore than for Boy George: each man has 20 or so states under his belt, with ten undecided. But under the electoral college vote system, Gore is winning the bigger and more important states; polls suggest he currently commands around 265 electoral college votes (270 being the number required to win), while Boy George has only 163. Should Gore take Florida, for example - governed by Boy George's kid brother Jeb - the White House is very likely his. The media circus is now moving to Winston-Salem: but be wary of the media consensus that will then lazily spew forth.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 09 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Schools that teach children to lie