Stop the Silly Debate Circus

Originally posted: September 29, 2012

The presidential debates would better serve the citizenry if they were not presented on television. Television is a terrible place for presidential candidates to demonstrate whether they have the ideas and substance to lead the country in these challenging times.

Televised debates force candidates to worry more about their on-screen appearances than their economic plans. Television creates short attention spans for viewers, so candidates have to condense analysis of complicated international tensions into two-minute answers. Television brings with it TV journalists, who insist on inserting themselves into the discussions at every stage as questioners, referees, critics and, worst of all, celebrities.

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan famously said in the 1960s that “the medium is the message.” With so much candidate and audience focus on the television medium, real political debate gets swallowed up. Television is a medium of emotion; it doesn’t lend itself to rational thinking and analysis. Thus, people who watch televised debates have their rational thought processes short-circuited by the debate spectacle, production, visuals, staging — everything but the issue substance of the candidates.

Pundits are hyping the upcoming Obama-Romney debates, dispensing superlatives at every opportunity. ABC’s George Stephanopoulus says the debates will be “crucial” and “a big, big moment.” GOP analyst Karl Rove says the debates “loom large.” Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly asserts the debates “are going to tell the tale” of the election. Indeed, the drama is building, but it is the kind of drama that precedes a NASCAR race, with people wondering who will end up in a wreck.

A Pew Research Center study after the 2008 election indicated that 67 percent of voters said the debates were “very” or “somewhat” helpful in deciding which candidate to vote for, but much of this sentiment surely came from people who were watching to reaffirm their choice. Most politically engaged people have made up their minds by the October debate season.

More important than what happens during the debates is how journalists frame the debates with post-debate reporting and analysis. The reporting will focus on who “won,” based largely on style, poise and witty one-liners. That narrative will affect voter perception far more than any technical debate points scored with real content. A candidate could make sense for 90 minutes, but the post-debate journalistic agenda could end up exaggerating one verbal slip-up (Ford in 1976) or one catchy phrase (Reagan in 1980).

It is worth noting that viewership of presidential debates has declined over the years, so the electorate apparently doesn’t see these spectacles as hugely important as the media producers do. The four Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960 averaged more than 60 million viewers each. The last time viewership averages were more than 60 million was in 1992, when Clinton, Perot and George H.W. Bush had their three-ring circus. Since then, the combined 11 presidential debates have averaged fewer than 50 million viewers.

The debates will show us which campaign choreographer can best coax his candidate to look poised, use the proper hand gestures, memorize the play-it-safe lines, smile when needed, growl when needed and spout the pre-planned zingers at the right time. We won’t see who could negotiate with multiple constituencies to arrive at workable solutions. We won’t see who could interact effectively with foreign diplomats or congressional opposition leaders behind closed doors. We won’t see who could genuinely develop consensus in a polarized nation.

A major debate overhaul is needed. First, get rid of the journalist moderators and give the candidates 90 minutes to talk with each other without referees or time limits. Let’s see whether the presidential hopefuls can have a sensible conversation. Then, get rid of the fancy production, sets, and staging that distract us from candidates’ ideas. Broadcast the debates only on radio. Better yet, forget the electronic media altogether and publish a written transcript of the debates. Citizens can then sit down and read the candidates’ insights in a careful, deliberative manner that focuses on content and not flash. McLuhan would surely approve.

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