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Posted: October 8, 2010 12:30 a.m.

Debatable news judgement

What I saw Sunday in Athens was one thing. When I read about it in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Monday, it was another thing entirely.


Gubernatorial candidates Roy Barnes, Nathan Deal and John Monds stood before television cameras at Georgia Public Broadcasting studios in Atlanta, while a group of University of Georgia political science students and a panel of professors, including my husband, Bob, watched the so-called debate in a classroom. Afterwards, the profs threw out their opinions on the candidates' performances and issues, seeking student input as well.

The faceoff was judged by the professors as a tie between Barnes and Deal, while the students leaned toward Barnes as the victor. One professor thought a tie was a win for Deal because of his presumed standing in the polls. (Considering the margin of error in most polls and the number of undecided voters, an observer could still consider the race neck-and-neck.)

For this to have been their first televised encounter, the proceedings were remarkably tame. It was as if they came there determined not to screw up. Barnes was low-key, even when trying to call Deal into account for irregularities in his financial statements, saying he didn't "trust" Deal to add correctly. He calmly embraced his loss in 2002 as due partly to voter anger at his part in the removal of the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag. Deal's fixed face never changed as he questioned Barnes' career as a litigator and his support for President Obama, at which Barnes equivocated. Monds mechanically repeated his call for new leadership and less government. His support for legalizing hemp growing and arming college campuses drew audible derision from the students.

By luck of the draw, Deal had the last word before the cameras went dark and got away with a doozy when he said Barnes left a $640 million deficit after four years in office, that being impossible to do because the state constitution requires a balanced budget. Other than that, there were no reckless throw-downs, nothing to get the blood going or the emotions into high gear among the candidates or observers. It was far short of an actual debate.

Yet come Monday morning, the AJC front page headline read: "First televised debate turns fiery." The writer used words like "battle," "body blows," "hit," "jab," and "attacked." Excuse me? Was he at the same event we watched? It would seem not.

This reporter and his editor purposely elected to write in some drama that just wasn't there. And for what reason? The figuring is that to garner more readers, there must be the specter of war, battles won or lost, blood left on the street, Davids and Goliaths, underdogs and frontrunners, scars and wounds. In this case, the AJC skewed the narrative for its own purposes.

In this election season, rage, outrage, anger, angst, name-calling, witchcraft, lying, finger-pointing, pushing, shoving, threats, warring words, fear-mongering, rudeness and incivility appear to rule the day. It's nothing less than disingenuous for a newspaper to concoct more of it for the sake of eye-catching headlines, and in a perfect world, it wouldn't happen. Voters already have plenty of reasons to vote mad: Think jobs and joblessness, immigration, the dearth of small business lending, the housing market, the tarnishing of the American dream, the Gulf Oil spill, wars, fear of the future and the growing gap between the haves and have-nots. Some research even posits that their angst and anger derive from the perceived general breakdown in long-held mores, including the celebrity culture, the impact of social media and general incivility at all levels. They/we want someone to pay for all that's wrong. Fingers always point somewhere else.

Barbara Morgan is a resident of Covington with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics. Her column appears on Fridays.


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