Assessing the media: Who won the first presidential debate?

If you missed thefirstpresidential debateyou probably relied on the media to tell you who won.

BTW, you're not alone. TV audiences for presidential debates have been shrinking for more than two decades. McCain-Obama Round 1 drew30 million fewer viewers as compared to the Carter-Reagan debatein 1980.

These days themedia relies on instant national polls toproclaim a winner.

Here's thescorecard compiled bypolling guruMark Blumenthal of

  • USA Today and Gallup: Of those surveyed, 46 percent thought Obama "did a better job" in the debate, 34 percent preferred McCain.
  • CNN/Opinion Research Corporation: Of those surveyed, 51 percent thought Obama "did the best job in the debate," and 38 percent thought McCain did best.
  • CBS News and Knowledge Networks: Thirty-nine percent thought Obama "did the best job — or won," while 24 percent preferred McCain.
  • Zogby International: They "gave Obama the win by the slightest of margins" (47 percent to 46 percent).
  • Democratic affiliated Democracy Corps: Thirty-eight percent of this non-random sample thought Obama won, 27 percent gave the win to McCain.
  • LA Times/Bloomberg: Thirty-three percent of debate watchers said Obama did the best job, and 29 percent gave the nod to McCain.

So how did Jersey's largest circulating dailies do sorting it all out?

With smallerstaffs, most of the reporting came from the wire service. Problem is the AP story only reported the CNN and the CBSpoll results.

APdidcaution readers about the unreliability of one-night polls.

Hands down, The Record did the best job telling us what voters thought after the debate. While it ran the AP story, it added posts from the Washington Post News Service, and the Los Angeles Times in its follow-up coverage. Over the course of the campaignso far, The Record has included polling from USA Today/Gallup, New York Times/CBS News Poll and the Washington Post/ABC Poll.

The Press of Atlantic City added some local flavor to the APstory by convening its own panel organized by the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton College. "Six of the eight panelists could not make up their minds who won the verbal sparring, while one voter each said McCain and Obama won." The Press plans to hold another panel during the vice-presidential debate.

The Star Ledger gets credit for telling its readers why the "instant post-debate polls by the three cable networks (is) not always an accurate reflection of voter verdicts" in John Farmer's column. Farmer also threw in some subject-matter-experts to help explain what the results really mean – if anything.

The Asbury Park Press offered local commentary from supporters in both camps – nothing scientific about that – while The Times of Trenton and Courier Post just went with the AP story.

BTW for Blumenthal's money, "the most useful analysis so far is the one from CBS and Knowledge Networks, because they focused on previously uncommitted voters and were able to report on how the debate changed specific impressions among these critically important voters."

But even Blumenthal thinks we'll have to wait for more polling over the next few days before anyone can be sure which of the candidates is gaining traction with the voters.

Debbie Holtz,'s political media columnist, studies and teaches public policy and writing at Rutgers University. Assessing the media: Who won the first presidential debate?