Between an expected record TV audience and multiple armies of spin dueling in cyberspace, we are talking spectacle – not the conversation of democracy.
Monday night's presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is expected to make television history with the largest audience ever for such an event — exceeding the 80 million in 1980 for Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.
But the TV screen might not be the one that matters most as voters decide who won or lost this pivotal encounter in one of the most media-saturated and unusual elections in modern American history.
Even though television has again defied all those "dinosaur" predictions to hold center stage in the world of 2016 politics, social media will play a larger role than ever in Monday's debate. And it will do so both in real time as the debate is taking place and immediately following as viewers make up their minds about what they saw.
Most of all, if 2012 is any indication, it will also shape morning-after, mainstream news consensus as publications and cable TV race to deliver the first draft of this history for the record books.
Social media played a role in the 2008 and 2012 victories by Democratic candidate Barack Obama, to be sure. But that role was little understood at the time, as it was executed most effectively and stealthily by Team Obama to generate hashtags, drive tweets and shape opinion about the debates between the Democrat and John McCain and Mitt Romney, respectively.
In the second debate in 2012, #KillBigBird and #Bindersfullofwomen negatively framed Romney's remarks about PBS and his efforts to hire women while governor of Massachusetts. The hashtags dominated Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook for five days following the debates, according to a study by the Crimson Hexagon Social Media Company. The hashtags colonized social media so fast that Facebook had a "Binders Full of Women" page with 100,000 fans before the debate even ended, according to a CNN report.
Those hashtags helped hand Obama, who had lost the first debate, a much-needed win in his bid for re-election. But as skilled and large as Obama's social media team was, it would be dwarfed by the two armies of spin that will be going to war in cyberspace to control the conversation during Monday's debate moderated by NBC anchorman Lester Holt and the analyses afterward.
In Clinton's corner, you have such highly sophisticated, veteran politico-media operatives as David Brock, founder of the liberal Media Matters for America operation, heading up Correct the Record, a pro-Clinton super PAC that describes itself as "a strategic research and rapid response team designed to defend Hillary Clinton from baseless attacks."
Rabid response might be a better adjective given the intensity of the blowback Correct the Record has directed during the campaign at such top news outlets as The New York Times and the Associated Press — not just challenging their negative stories about Clinton, but attacking the credibility of the news operations themselves.
Correct the Record has even gone after CNN, which has generally been far more supportive of Clinton, when the cable channel strayed from what the super PAC considers the correct path of pro-Clinton coverage.
Check out video of an Aug. 5 CNN appearance by former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a senior adviser at Correct the Record, who went after CNN host Jake Tapper for saying Clinton is not "entitled to her own facts" in talking about FBI statements on her use of a private email server. Granholm actually let out a shout of exasperation at the end of the discussion when Tapper refused to back off his statement and bow to her corrective rant.
The darker level at which this campaign is now being waged by Correct the Record was perhaps best suggested earlier this month when Brock offered "compensation" for fresh dirt on Trump. According to the website, the organization is looking to "uncover unreported video or audio" of Trump "so voters can have access to the Donald Trump who existed before running for president." Cash for trash on Trump.
In Trump's corner is the equally combative and ideologically driven Stephen K. Bannon, who now serves as CEO of the GOP candidate's campaign. Until taking that post, Bannon was CEO of the parent company of Breitbart News, the conservative online news operation founded by the late Andrew Breitbart.
A Bloomberg Businessweek profile in 2015 described Bannon as "the most dangerous political operative in America," as well as the man who runs "the new vast right-wing conspiracy" and "wants to take down Hillary Clinton."
Talk about ideological silos. These guys helped build the silos in which many voters now live — and they want theirs to be the only ones left standing when the dust settles. Both Brock and Bannon are digital media masters, and their armies will be spinning for all they are worth Monday night.
There is also going to be a third group in the mix Monday night — one that will add yet another level of spin — consisting of those journalists who have decided this election is so unusual that the old-school rules of balance and fairness no longer apply.
The argument here opens with the proposition that there has never been a major-party presidential candidate quite like Trump. I agree with that.
But I disagree with the conclusion some journalists have come to: that Trump, therefore, demands a new kind of coverage — one that abandons traditional standards.
This call has often come from anchors, reporters and columnists on the left, like Jacob Weisberg, at Slate, who said on CNN's "Reliable Sources" that covering Clinton and Trump is not a matter of apples and oranges — it's an apple and "some rancid meat."
Or, as Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, who describes himself as an independent, put it: "Like it or not, this election is a plebiscite on the most divisive, polarizing and disrupting figure in American politics in decades. And neutrality is not an option. … The day after the election will be too late. ... Judgment day is coming. Will you have peace of mind come November 9th?"
Even if a new form of coverage is demanded, you don't throw out bedrock values like balance, evidence and fairness overnight to do it — especially when those values guided the coverage that brought down a president during the Watergate scandal. We didn't need a new form of journalism to expose Richard Nixon.
Some of the most effective coverage of Trump has come not from rhetoric like that of Ramos, but rather from traditional legacy outlets doing investigations and biographical reports on Trump. At the head of that class: The New York Times showing how heavily influenced the businessman was by the late Roy Cohn, sidekick to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and The Washington Post digging into the candidate's claims of donating to charities and veterans groups.
Some of the journalists calling for a new kind of coverage of Trump were among those leading the attacks on NBC "Today" show host Matt Lauer for his performance moderating NBC's "Commander-in-Chief Forum" earlier this month. He was mocked and reviled for allegedly being too tough on Clinton and not tough enough on Trump.
Teamed with Media Matters for America and Correct the Record, this is a coalition with some serious ideological clout. Not that Bannon, Breitbart, the Drudge Report and Brent Bozell's Newsbusters won't be able to hold their own on the other side of the fence.
For the record, I also ripped Lauer, but the harshest criticism, which I sounded on "Reliable Sources," was directed at NBC for assigning someone I consider a newsreader or show host rather than a journalist to moderate such an important forum. NBC went for show business over journalism, and it paid the price.
Depending, that is, on how you define price. Financially, programs like NBC's "Commander-in-Chief Forum" and Monday's debate have turned out to be cash machines for the networks and cable channels.
CNN and Fox News are sold out for Monday's pre- and post-debate programs, according to Adweek, an industry publication. Excluding the 90-minute debate itself, which will be ad-free, that covers 7 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. on both channels. CBS is also reportedly sold out, with prices approaching $225,000 for 30-second ads.
But with all the extra layers of spin in the media ecosystem, the question that remains is the extent to which voters and democracy will be served. We will have a deluge of information and analysis on more screens than ever Monday night. But with so much of it coming from hardcore partisan sources and/or journalists who have abandoned traditional notions of balance and fairness, how much of it can be trusted?
I'm a media critic, so this hybrid TV-social media political event is a feast. There are almost too many potential story lines with groundbreaking implications for the way media affect our lives to count.
But as a citizen, I am feeling starved for information and increasingly shaky about the real-world implications for us when we go to the polls in less than seven weeks to elect one of the two least-trusted candidates in recent history. For example, I still don't have anything more on the elderly candidates' health than a doctor's letter and a page of basic test results from each.
That's outrageous. And the media must share some of the blame for being so compliant at first with the candidates and now downright confused in how they should be covered.
Here we sit as a nation on the eve of this debate, passively accepting our lack of solid information while eagerly awaiting the entertainment spectacle of two contentious opponents who have said harsh things about each other coming together on the same stage to do battle.
Will it be the most-watched debate ever? Will it get a Super-Bowl-sized audience? How big a bite will it take out of "Monday Night Football"? This is politics as entertainment or sporting event — not the conversation of a healthy democracy.
So enjoy the show — on TV and in social media. It's all we have. And we are going to have to live with the results for four years at a time of economic transformation and social revolution when we will desperately need a great leader in the White House.