If you’re one of the many souls who were frustrated by the New York Times’ decision to endorse two Democratic presidential candidates, I can sympathize. But if you were one of the people who were really frustrated by the way the whole thing was handled through The Weekly, welcome to the club. Ostensibly an experimental attempt to increase transparency, the special endorsement episode turned out to be astonishingly superficial, perhaps to the point of undermining the entire practice itself.
It’s a good thing, then, that the experiments didn’t stop at the TV show. The Times also released, with less fanfare, a podcast companion to the project called The Choice, and, as it turns out, that’s probably where the bulk of the newspaper’s efforts should have been placed.
We were told The Weekly’s endorsement episode would be a historic opportunity, one meant to open up the endorsement process to the outside world; for the first time in the newspaper’s 160-year history, we could vicariously experience it and, hopefully, better understand it. On paper, such an experiment matches the moment, given the declining rates of societal trust in institutions. If you could provide the masses with better context as to how the endorsement choices are made and further insight into both the people running for office and the people making those choices, then that theoretically would be a significant bit of public service — and, if we’re really lucky, good television.
But the episode of The Weekly we got instead on Sunday night was, frankly, a bizarre hour of television. It simply didn’t work as a vessel of insight. Rather than bringing the outside world into a decidedly insider process, the episode was a peculiar feat of compression, flattening what should have been a fascinating, complex situation into wrought, simplistic moments that weren’t always particularly interesting. Instead of helping to substantiate the hallowed status of the endorsement, it cheapened the thing, deepening whatever doubt we might already have had about the Times editorial board, and we were left with the performed artifice that comes when people know they’re on camera. Worse still was how the outcome at the end of the hour didn’t quite connect, or necessarily track, with the process shown throughout the rest of the show. Transparency might have been the goal, but the episode could never rise above a feeling of arbitrariness.
Understandably, there are technical reasons for making those compression-related choices, since there’s only so much you can do with an hour of television. (Or, more accurately, around 50 minutes, plus ads.) But then the inevitable question would be, Why do it this way, then? Was the construct of an hour-long episode of television the most appropriate way to carry out this supposedly historic experiment in transparency?
What really rankles is the extent to which this was a missed opportunity for something genuinely interesting, perhaps even new. In a political-media context that is primarily built around television debates styled after wrestling pay-per-views, messaging via sound bites and media moments, and the trench warfare of social media, here we had a chance to experience each candidate as a thinking person. This could have been an opportunity to hear them react, engage with the questions being thrown at them, and think out loud. This is how we could have seen their humanity, how their interior lives meet the exterior world, which would presumably give some useful context to their positions and the likelihood that they would actualize them. It’s hard to get that from the full transcripts published on the Times website because walls of text can be difficult to connect with, and it’s certainly something you won’t get from Sunday’s episode of The Weekly, where you can’t get past the hard hand of the editing.
There may still be a chance to salvage the interestingness of the experiment, though. While nothing can be done about the dual-endorsement situation, a significant amount of value and insight can be gleaned from The Choice, a companion podcast the Times is releasing along with the episode of The Weekly and the full transcripts online. Each installment of The Choice presents nearly the full audio recording of a candidate’s interview. As of this writing, they’re still trickling out; three interviews are up, with the corresponding deliberations of the editorial-board members. This format’s execution gets the Times much closer to the underlying goals of transparency and insight than video or text does.
To begin with, you get the near-complete context of every interview. As a listener, you’re brought into the flow of how every question connects to the answer to the previous question, which means you get a better feel for where the candidate and the editorial board are at any point in the process. Some moments of levity or testiness thus make more sense, and you’re also given better insight into where the candidate is coming from. Without the visual element, you’re somewhat removed from potential distractions provided by the sense of artifice or pageantry embedded in a spectacle being recorded for television. With that distance closed, you can better engage with what’s being said, and you can do it without a lurking feeling of being mediated. All the audio recordings released so far appear to be lightly (almost bordering on crudely) edited with relatively minimal interspersing of context via voice-over by a board member. The end effect really does feel like you have a window onto a unique situation, that you’re just sitting in a chair in the corner of the room.
Steps toward transparency tend to be attempts to be better understood — in this case, understanding how the endorsement process works and why. The Times isn’t quite successful with this experiment on either front across all formats, at least not directly. However, with these lightly edited audio recordings distributed as a free podcast outside the paywall, the Times is somewhat successful in providing both an interesting historical artifact and a kind of transparency for the candidates along with some indirect insight into how we should understand this whole endorsement thing. We see it as a human process, flawed people engaging with flawed people. On those gains alone, the spectacle is almost marginally worth it.