I have a love-hate relationship with presidential debates.
Love watching, studying, and analyzing them. Preparing them, not so much.
Over the years, I’ve worked on 30 presidential debates (including one vice presidential), researching candidate positions and histories, brainstorming debate topics, drafting and refining questions, and prepping moderators and panelists for the big night.
Exciting and important stuff, for sure, but each time a new presidential debate was put on my calendar, it wasn’t necessarily excitement I felt in the pit of my stomach. I knew it meant I’d be spending much of the coming days, weeks, and months in a high-stakes, high-pressure environment, often in a dark, windowless trailer or basement, sitting on the floor using a trash can for a desk.
But I also knew that it would be some of the most important work I’d do as a journalist. For reporters, voters, scholars, and political junkies alike, presidential debates are a treasure trove of golden nuggets of valuable information mined not just from what the candidates say but also from how they say it and how they don’t say it.
Debates, if done correctly, can offer voters an opportunity to “kick the tires” on the field of presidential candidates, comparing and contrasting their positions in real time and measuring their sometimes intangible personal qualities. Debates give candidates a chance to speak directly to voters and to respond immediately before a wide audience to charges and accusations made by other candidates. And they’re often a battle of wills between the candidates who hope to deliver canned talking points and zingers and the moderators who try to get them to answer the actual questions posed to them. Toss in millions of arm-chair debate critics second-guessing your every move on social media, and the result is a wonderfully meaty and messy mix of democracy in action. To be one of the people responsible for shaping the direction of these important events will always be one of the great and unique honors of my career.
In addition to working on debates, I spent much of my time as CNN’s Director of Political Research on a sub-category of political and election coverage that I affectionately refer to as Journalism’s D-List: deciphering the presidential delegate selection process, diving into election data on CNN’s Election Night Decision Desk, tracking campaign dollars, and sifting through voluminous campaign and governmental document dumps.
Toiling away on the D-list for 17-plus years gave me a great vantage point to observe the many challenges that journalism faces today. But if there was one thing the breakneck pace of the 24-hour news cycle doesn’t leave a lot of time for, it’s thoughtful and in-depth rumination about the vexing and weighty issues facing the industry.
That’s why, after a long and grueling 2016 campaign cycle, I jumped at the chance to take a step back and examine the practice of journalism and campaign coverage using a much wider lens, first as a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow and now as the Howard R. Marsh Visiting Professor of Journalism, both at my alma mater, the University of Michigan.
I’ve tried to create courses that draw upon my practical expertise as a working journalist as well as from the leading scholarship available on political communication. “Covering Presidential Campaigns” (COMM 306) is a large lecture class that follows the narrative arc of the presidential campaign cycle and the news media’s sizable role in it. “Believe Me: Campaign Messaging from Truman to Trump” (COMM 439, Sec 2) is a small, upper-level seminar that focuses on how campaigns formulate and disseminate their key messages in speeches, debates, TV ads, direct mail, and social media and how the news media cover and often influence those messages. Both of these courses draw heavily from the unfolding 2020 presidential campaign for timely source material.
Another seminar course, “Journalism Under Siege,” (COMM 439, Sec 1) examines the growing challenges and threats facing journalism and the dissemination of news and information both in the United States and abroad. This course was largely influenced by my experience in the Knight-Wallace Fellowship, where I collaborated with and learned from journalists from around the globe.
I keep several goals in mind to help guide me through the semester. Among them: to give students the tools they need to be shrewd and discriminating consumers of news and information; to encourage and support an ongoing interest in public affairs; to share things I wish I knew before embarking on a career in political journalism; and to understand and appreciate the many curiosities and absurdities of the political and media ecosystems. These things will be important in 2020 when both the University, as host of one of the fall general election debates, and the state of Michigan itself will play critical roles in the presidential election. But ultimately, I hope my students will continue to be actively engaged in public affairs long after they leave U-M, when they’re “the leaders and best” in their professions and in their communities.
Outside of the classroom, I get my political journalism fix from covering Michigan politics for Inside Elections, as an election night consultant for Edison Media Research, and also as the host of “The J Word,” a local public affairs talk radio program about journalism. I’ve also attended some of the early presidential debates of the cycle.
At the Detroit debate in July, I had the chance to do something I’ve never done before: watch a CNN presidential debate from inside the debate hall as a member of the audience instead of from inside a control room while frantically taking notes and clicking on multiple stopwatches. It was definitely a bit weird for me to watch CNN’s first Yoon-less presidential debate in 20 years from the sidelines. On the one hand, I didn’t miss the all-nighters and discovering all the innovative ways people could come up with to create more work for me. But at the same time, I missed the excitement of being a part of history.
I guess you could say, as is the case with a lot of intense, long-term relationships, it’s complicated.
Robert Yoon is an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning political journalist and the Howard R. Marsh Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan. You can follow him on Twitter @robyoon.