Debatable? Indeed.

A full-scale, live television candidate debate just may be the pinnacle of unscripted yet predictable “reality TV,” with a local example as proof. It was a circus of tamed animals, no clowns.

Illustration of Mark Pryor and Tom Cotton by Shafali Anand. Republished with permission of Talk Business & Politcs
Illustration by Shafali Anand.
Courtesy of Talk Business & Politics

On Tuesday, Oct. 14, incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor faced Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton at a University of Arkansas auditorium.

Below are my takeaways. For what happened, see these two thorough news articles.

The Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce sponsored the debate, the second of two for this race. The host TV station was KHBS/KHOG (where I interned in 1978) but two other stations in the state were co-producers, with C-Span deeming this important enough to air live nationally on its main channel. The feed can be viewed at the website of Little Rock’s KATV, which has broken the hour-long video into four segments.

The reflections that I first posted during the debate on Twitter and Facebook are in quotes. Others are based on my notes.

Ooh la la

“At Senate debate — live at 7 on 40/29 and C-Span at 7. Rather hoi polloi audience.”

I was given a last-minute seat by a friend at KHBS (channels 40/29), to represent my employer, the University of Arkansas Center for Ethics in Journalism, where I am assistant director [until May 2015]. The 300 audience members were hand-picked and comprised the management side of regional news media, top business executives and other VIPs.

No doubt the crowd was bipartisan. All of us behaved as requested — cell phones on silent but social media and photos were allowed — even encouraged with KHBS’s Angela Taylor noting twice the hashtag was #4029debate — and applause only at the beginning and end.

The seats were assigned. The press were put in the mezzanine. While no bags were inspected, security was evident.

Hoi polloi” was meant ironically. [Paragraph added]

Insert Punch Line Here

“Any minute now, Rep. Cotton will say the president & Sen. Pryor are gay-steady, maybe gay-engaged.”

In all campaign appearances and Tuesday night, Tom Cotton has said Obama’s name frequently, working to link Pryor with the two-term commander-in-chief. Seeing this in person got old. On TV commercials I hit mute.

This was no late-night TV joke but an allusion to the trope “politics make strange bedfellows.” Mark Pryor and defeated Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln before him had taken obvious pains throughout their terms to dissociate themselves from the leaders of their party. Lincoln lost this state in 2010 to Republican John Boozman. Pryor remains behind in the polls, though his race with Cotton is close. Hence the interest in this race.

Is All Politics Local? Is It Even Retail?

“Sen. Mark Pryor won on MVSB, most valuable sound bite: ‘He is running against one man (not me). I am running for 3 million Arkansans.’

“That was essentially the opening of his closing statement. It also was the first time Pryor unclenched and had let his face show emotion — he smiled with confidence and some warmth.

“People keep saying how stiff Rep. Tom Cotton is. He was but so was Pryor, both intent on staying on message. Until that two-sentence MVSB above — Pryor’s face relaxed. It was as if he knew he won the debate. Of course, who won the debate doesn’t translate directly into votes, and he surely knows that.”

This was my concluding Facebook post.

Until the closing statements, Pryor never looked at the audience. Cotton never looked around, either, even during his last comment. Weren’t we the audience? Later I saw the 10 o’clock news. Each fellow always looked directly at his camera.

Ohhhh.

Concussion from Softball Toss

Twitter failed to record one of my tweets. It was just as well. Taylor, KHBS’ on-stage journalist, asked what seemed in the moment the softest of softball questions, how does each man define “middle class.”

I typed my mockery as each candidate played the question to rehearsed 60-second economic talking points. Then Twitter or my phone crashed. Taylor’s turned out to have been the best question of the night.

Then moderator Roby Brock of Talk Business & Politics (for whom I have written a few articles) asked the men to answer the question in their 30-second rebuttal periods.

Pryor said $200,000 is a middle-class income. Cotton’s eyes widened but otherwise as usual was expressionless and said $40,000 a year was more like it.

Cotton and his handlers should jump on this and exploit it.

But in the moment and now, I do not think Pryor misspoke.

“Middle class” has become a baloney term. No well-to-do person wants to be thought of as rich, preferring at most to be deemed upper-middle-class. No blue-collar person wants to be considered what accurately often can be the working poor.

Cotton’s $40,000 estimate for, presumably, a family, would stretch them tight, even in his native rural Arkansas. Forty K should be fairly considered a top working-class income or at best lower-middle-class.

Pryor’s $200,000 in Arkansas indeed would be grand, but on either coast or as a national average? Consider some mom and dad, professionals both, pulling a hundred grand each. These days they will be paying off college loans, a sizable mortgage and driving not-new SUVs. They’re not rich, they’re worried about their spending, retirement savings and their children’s upcoming educational expenses.

We of the middle-middle class gain college degrees then work hard at professional jobs so $30k to $70k a person sounds right. A U.S. News statistical analysis for 2014 indicates the full range of middle class annual incomes can be seen as $25,500 to $76,500 per worker. [Paragraph revised]

Look at that $40,000 family income: $20,000 a year equals $10 an hour (50 40-hour work weeks), below the president’s proposed $10.10 minimum wage.

High-low: The American middle class in the aught-teens includes both of these figures or neither of them. When you listen to people, it’s both. [Paragraph added]

Street Rally

Three groups of protestors stood near the main door of UA’s Global Campus building. Their efforts paralleled the lack of direct eye contact the candidates had for the audience right in front of them.

I drove past young adults along Center Street looking to park, dreading having to walk through them in a minute.

One set of picketers was pro-Cotton. Another, larger set (12-15 on the former and maybe 20 for the latter) were pro-Pryor. Each had a corner of Center at East Avenue. About eight stood on a third corner thrusting pro-life, anti-abortion placards.

All three were yelling loudly, sometimes in a chant — “Vote Pryor” and the like. None looked at me and indeed moved apart to let me pass.

They screamed only at the few passing cars.

Isn’t that strange?

Holy Wholesale Politics

Immediately after the On the Air lights dimmed and Pryor and Cotton shook hands with the panelists and each other, a telling duality occurred.

Cotton stayed on stage and was joined with his wife. They stood, obviously waiting for the cameras and interviews.

Pryor meanwhile hustled down the steps and shook hands with audience members seat by seat until well-wishers in the crowd got his attention and he greeted them.

Will this matter on Nov. 4?

Unleaded, Regular or Ethics

Can I tie any of this to my new career in Journalism Ethics? Yes. We of the news media are a significant cause of creating these nasty and faulty campaign tactics. Yet it’s not the news media per se but the cable punditocracy of all political bents.

The glib talkers — a number of whom are or have been op-ed print columnists —  only feed the larger cause, the money.

The commentators on MSNBC, Fox and so on shouldn’t be classified as journalists, strictly speaking those who research and communicate what they learn. But viewers generally have a broad view of those who speak authoritatively before cameras — they pass the journalism quack test.

Wealthy individuals, corporations and organizations believe, with some evidence, that their donations strongly influence political action and to a lesser extent the will of voters. This continues to be democracy’s greatest wound.

The media professionals repeat and elaborate on the scripts (talking points) of the PACs. At times cleverer commentators provide fresh material to those who make the gifts.

It’s not debatable. Gift is not the right word.

Copyright 2014 Ben S. Pollock Jr.

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