What the World Needs Now: The Tony Reali of Political Debates
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 7, 2008
Happy trails, factual inaccuracy
It’s a shallow, and likely oft-made observation, but it always bowls me over just how little difference there is between political news coverage and sports news coverage. There have been so many times since the primaries that I’ve walked from my room with ESPN on the TV to my roommate watching CNN in our living room, and barely noticed a difference. The tickers look the same, the post-game discussions sound the same, and the redundancy is similarly egregious. It’s probably not coincidental, and I’m sure both have made changes over the years to be more like the other, but it’s still fairly jarring. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing–in fact, rather than wonder what steps should be made to differentiate the two, however, I ask in what ways they need to be even more similar. And the most obvious answer to me is the need for a Tony Reali figure in political debate.
Now, fans of rush hour ESPN might assume that by this, I mean that debates need a hands-on moderator like the one Reali serves as on Around the Horn. And indeed, it is tempting to picture last week’s Biden / Palin debate with more third-party feedback than that hypnotic graph on the bottom of the screen, supposedly tracing the second-by-second approval ratings of undecided male and female voters to subjects like gay marriage and third graders staying up late. Imagine this debate with Reali there, adding and subtracting points from the candidates’ tallies in real time, making snarky remarks in response to tired or unpersuasive arguments, and finger perpetually on the mute button in case one of them goes completely off the rails. Can’t pretend like that wouldn’t make for more compelling television, can we?
But rather than be that drastic, I’d say it would suffice just to have a Reali-type figure based on his role in Pardon the Interruption, in which he plays the fact-checking Stat Boy, appearing at the end of the program to correct inaccurate assertions made by hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon. My friends and I have often joked about how we wished we had a Reali to close out our pop culutre and statistic-heavy conversations, settling debates by offering helpful tidbits like “Actually, Anna Paquin was only the THIRD youngest actor to ever be nominated for an Oscar–Haley Joel Osment was 11, and Justin Henry was all of eight when he got his first nod…and Kim Carnes’ ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ only spent nine weeks on top of the charts, a week less than the duration of Olivia Newton John’s ‘Physical’.”
So imagine what he could do for a presidential debate? During each of these, a whole slue of stat-related assertions get thrown out for which most people couldn’t possibly have a clue of the actual accuracy. Some might say that the candidates purposefully take advantage of that ignorance to throw out their own crooked numbers, but really, could you even blame them if they just couldn’t keep all the stats straight? So why not have a crack team in the CNN research room to check the veracity of all the number-related assertions–maybe tape delay the debate 15-20 minutes if they need a little time to do so–and then at the end of the debate, one of the candidates calls out “Time to find out where we messed up. Reali!”
“Actually, Senator McCain only voted against alternative energy 15 times, and a couple of those were as riders on other bills…and the average schoolteacher now makes 35-40 thousand dollars a year, not the 30-35 that Senator Obama suggests…and this is actually only the fifth most important election our viewers will vote in in their lifetimes, behind 1984, 2000, 2020 and 2032…”
If the public gets statistical accountability in sports, they probably deserve it in politics too, I’d say.