First Impressions: Sun Debate

The Lowell Sun hosted three debates last Thursday. They posted videos of each debate here. I haven’t seen the first one yet, so I will save everything but first impressions for a later post. The debate was at Lowell High School Six candidates and a moderator were closely packed around one side of a table draped in red. It and the Sun logo were the only splashes of color against black drapes and grey carpet. A spotlight focused on the candidates like a laser, and a couple dozen in the audience circled around them.

Tense, dramatic setting, right? However, the candidates seemed at ease, appearing to enjoy one another. The tension one often sees in the City Council chamber isn’t apparent. I thought, for the most part, it was a cordial discussion of issues rather than a heated debate. Between debates, I half-joked to one candidate that they put on a “good show,” and the candidate agreed something along the lines that “it’s all theater.” The theatrical aspect was no surprise. What surprised me about the debate is some of the chatter I heard during and after. Two things stood out:

1. The Sun posed at least a couple of, to me, strange questions. For example, moderators posed a question about a link between the lack of a permanent police superintendent and a recent spike in violent crime. (This Sun story notes the City Manager originally estimated a 4-6 month search, and it’s now been 7 months.) I would never have made this connection. Crime tends to clump in spikes or hotspots for a number of reasons, including copycatting and gang retribution (short NSF video about 2010 hotspot research in LA). The police have already mentioned a major factor in Lowell is a changing Marijuana market. On top of this, the crime rate isn’t worse than last year (the Gerry Nutter page referring to this is down). All the candidates agreed–there’s no reason to think there’s any causation, although some did imply “seven months is too long.”

Yet, during the questions I thought were strange, I heard the audience whispering, “Good question!” It is the responsibility of journalists to ask questions others don’t think of asking. However, it is also an easy tool to misuse, as journalists may plant an idea in folks’ heads without actually misstating facts or making any jumps in logic. These types of questions may also derail the conversation from important topics. Nevertheless, as the debate showed, these types of questions are also very appealing to the news audience.

2. More than one member of the audience said that the debate changed their voting plans. Aurora and I have been following the election and there were no surprises to us. Yet, perhaps this debate was the first exposure many had to many of the first-time challengers. I have heard people express surprise by the eloquence of Ms. Hargis or Mr. Mitchell, and I wonder if it’s because of their youth. Bill Samaris shares many of the same beliefs as Mr. Mitchell in particular, but he did much better in the preliminary. It might be because he seems an elder statesman and is familiar, as he was a Lowell High School headmaster. Dan Rourke, who did very well, is an exception to this hypothesis. However, he is related to and has been promoted by a popular State Representative, Tom Golden. Regardless, it highlights the challenge newcomers without some connection have in getting their message heard, even after countless radio interviews and neighborhood forums.

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