Monday, October 20, 2014

The "Debates"

By Bill Kraus

What is good about the debates?

They put opposing candidates on a stage together.

What is less good?

For openers. They are not debates. What they are is kind of a public editorial board meeting.

They are a showcase for talented broadcasters and a promotion for the quality of television newscasters where two instead of the usual one victim is on stage.

They cover so much ground that no subject gets the attention it deserves and some really trivial questions get more attention than they warrant.

They promote and promulgate sound bite politics.

They are an attack/counterattack medium. They promote incivility, even disrespect at a personal level instead of a discussion of multiple solutions to complicated problems.

The participants have figured them out. No one tries to seriously promote an idea. Compromise is not rewarded. No points are awarded for positives. The dangers to be avoided are all negative. They are a minefield that has to be crossed very cautiously, because a small misstep will be publicized and has known to be fatal.

I am not privy to the numbers, but the clue that this is not popular television fare is that fewer and fewer commercial broadcasters schedule them.

What can be done about them?

My own preference is the Charlie Davis solution. When he was asked in the 1960s to get his gubernatorial candidate to participate in a debate, Charlie said “No, thanks. The whole campaign is a debate.”

My second choice is the format that Mike Gousha created in this century. He was the moderator, questioner. He posed questions to the opposing candidates. Since there were only three of them involved, he could follow up with more questions if a candidate didn't respond directly to what was asked until he got an answer. He could also take the program in interesting directions if the responses opened up unanticipated opportunities. The format had the virtue of putting opposing candidates on a stage together and diminished attempts to dance around and past the questions they didn’t want to answer. It also focused on the hard questions and issues and tolerated longer, more complicated responses to the longer, more complicated subjects that were put on the table.

Is there any prospect of either of the above happening?

Not as long as candidates are more afraid of offending the broadcasters who have the power to limit their access to the airwaves than they are of taking the risks that are inherent in the non-debate format that has become standard.

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