2nd debate

Let’s Rethink Presidential Debates

by Charley James

Every four years, we are treated to a kind of Kabuki Theater that passes as presidential debates. In fact, they aren’t debates at all or even a decent interview but rather a choreographed photo op where talking points and YouTube ad copy takes precedent over substantive discussion.

It is time to rethink presidential debates, scrapping the current format altogether because it doesn’t work and starting over from scratch.

Voters are not becoming better informed and candidates get away with saying almost anything that pops into their heads. It was especially bad this year when Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan simply lied at every chance; in the third debate alone, I counted 23 Romney lies. Even worse, the format is such that the moderator often can’t correct inaccurate statements or even blatant “fibs” unless a statement is so off-kilter that it cannot pass unnoticed.

In fact, modern presidential debates have never really worked and the first of our era is a good example.

When John Kennedy met Richard Nixon in 1960, people who listened on radio felt Nixon had “won.” But voters who watched them spar on television and saw Nixon’s sweat running down his face and lip that he’d refused to let be covered with TV makeup, were convinced Kennedy had bested the Vice President.

The radio and television audiences heard the same questions from the same moderator answered by the same men using the same words. But the results were perceived entirely differently.

Vamping
Presidential debates are a joke.

Today, there seemed to be more of them during the 2012 Republican primaries than there have been Super Bowls going all the way back to Roman numeral I. This year, the debates covered no new territory and it was left to the spin doctors in the media bullpen to explain afterwards what the candidates said and why.

Debates for state and local elections are no better. For example, in Massachusetts the first debate between Sen. Scott Brown and challenger Elizabeth Warren focused not on Brown’s habit of saying one thing at home and voting the opposite way in Washington but became mired down with the two arguing whether or not Warren had Native American blood in her family tree.

Excuse me? How does that serve voters?

In a time long ago and a land far away when I was very MSM, I was part of a panel of four journalists who quizzed three Congressional candidates at one such debate. No matter how hard my colleagues and I tried to extract substantive answers, the trio spent the entire hour vamping for the camera and the studio audience. “Gotcha” responses and witty bon mot’s took precedent over any genuine discussion of issues voters were genuinely concerned about.

The only difference between the debate where I pretended to quiz candidates and today’s encounters between those who would be president is merely a matter of degree – and what is at stake.

Alternative
There are alternative approaches that might actually extract useful information. Here’s one idea.

In its first 20 years, Meet The Press was a serious encounter between knowledgeable journalists and politicians. This was decades before David Gregory turned the show into a weekly Sunday morning embarrassment for NBC News that somehow manages to book Sen. John McCain for something like 30 out of 52 weeks. Original episodes of The Daily Show aren’t on television that often, and Jon Stewart has something to say.

Originally, the show was hosted by Lawrence Spivak, who also co-created the program as a way to promote The American Mercurya thoughtful magazine founded by H.L. Mencken that Spivak edited at the time. He was joined by really top-notch reporters such as May Craig, Walter Lippmann and others. They grilled politicians unmercifully and wouldn’t let a guest mouth either untruths or talking points. As young as I was at the time, I can remember seeing Senators, Congressmen and major candidates squirm under intense questioning from Spivak and his cohorts.

A viable option would be to recreate a version of what Spivak did every week: Stage a series of separate 60 minute, back-to-back, one-on-one interviews with each candidate. Four serious journalists – not media stars but actual reporters who have reputations for being unbiased, knowledgeable, tough and thorough – would do the questioning. They would have the opportunity to ask follow-up questions when a candidate played footsie with facts.

Today, campaigns can veto the moderator chosen for each event; under the new format, they’d have no say in who would be doing the questioning. Instead, a panel of outstanding journalism professors at major universities should select the reporters.

While political reporters could be considered, frankly their performance in recent national elections left much to be desired.  It would be better to chose journalists with a non-political “beat.” So, for example, NBC’s Richard Engel might be part of a panel quizzing candidates on foreign affairs as could John Burns who runs The New York Times’ London bureau and covered Iraq and Afghanistan. On a show covering domestic issues, the agriculture editor of, say, The Des Moines Register might be a panelist. In other words, the questioners should be people who know the subject as well as – perhaps better – than the candidates.

The point is to avoid using questioners who are either too “inside the Beltway” or too close to their sources. That’s how the vast majority of Washington reporters got snookered by the Bush Administration on Iraq, and why reporters travelling with presidential candidates seldom call out their subject for telling “porgies” – a British term for fibbing – on the stump.

This is one possible alternative; no doubt, there are others to be considered.

Hands Off
Debates are run by the non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates but candidates exert a heavy influence on everything from locations and dates to who moderates an event. They need to be removed entirely from the process. Instead, the Commission needs to seriously examine not just the process but the format.

Opening and closing statements need to be eliminated. They are little more than carefully scripted, neatly rehearsed stump speeches. Instead, use the time for substance, not self-flattering commercials.

Get rid of the audience, which adds nothing to the event. And scrap the “town hall” episodes where supposedly ordinary people ask much-too-ordinary questions yet don’t have a chance to say, “Excuse me, but you didn’t answer my question …”

Abandon the sometimes elaborate sets that strive to give off an aura of seriousness. The event is serious enough; it doesn’t need David Hockney painting the stage. Have candidates sit facing their questioners against a plain backdrop.

In other words, find something that actually works.

Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen. Both the Commission and presidential candidates have a vested interest in keeping the current form and format of the debates. Whether the nation is well-served may be irrelevant.

Follow Charley on Twitter @SuddenlyHomeles.

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Charley James
Charley James, a pseudonym, is a long-time independent journalist based in Toronto who covers social justice, politics and economic issues. He's worked in print and broadcast media for national magazines, large newspapers and major market radio and television outlets.