Unreal Debates

The formats of presidential debates increasingly resemble the high-concept scripts of the dummied up reality shows on television.
Start paying attention. Presidential debate season is upon us.

The first one, this Thursday at the University of Miami, will focus on foreign policy, the eminent issue so far between President Bush and Sen. Kerry, if you don't count the who-did-what during Vietnam mud fling.

American voters should expect a chance to scrutinize the candidates under pressure as they argue their views on important issues during a presumably dramatic affair. "If only that were true," lamented The Christian Science Monitor last week on its commentary page. "The debates have become too staged and the answers too canned."

Voters apparently sense that, too. As the Monitor noted, when challenger Ronald Reagan took on President Jimmy Carter in 1980, the first debate I covered, about 80 million viewers tuned in. The last match-up between Dubya and Al Gore four years ago (in the closest modern presidential election) seemed important enough for watching to only 47 million.

It's not that these events are inherently boring, and certainly they can be influential, as shown in Reagan overtaking Carter that year, helped by a late debate victory ("There you go again!"). But the public senses an insult to the concept of a perfect democracy.

Mark Memmott of USA Today last week wrote of another dispiriting development in the debate syndrome. The Bush and Kerry campaigns both have asked the four moderators of the imminent debates to sign a 32-page "memorandum of understanding": acceptance of rules drawn up and mutually agreed upon by Democratic and Republican strategists.

And 32 pages? What's with that? This makes moderating a debate almost as complicated as doing your taxes or buying a house. It strikes some journalists and election experts in academia as somewhat similar to the "loyalty oaths" Reform Party candidate Ross Perot asked his supporters to sign in 1992.

Memmott quoted Northeastern University professor Alan Schroeder as calling the request "ludicrous" and commenting "They cover these guys. How can they climb into bed with them?"

After covering six presidential campaigns, and nine presidential debates, myself, I think I can put this in plain English: Campaign bigwigs for both Kerry and Bush are worried some ringer might slip in a tough question.

Consider the second presidential debate scheduled for Oct. 8 in St. Louis. It's a town hall format, and ABC's Charles Gibson, who's moderating, is supposed to pre-select written questions and then "cut off" anyone who changes the wording submitted. Neither Gibson, nor Jim Lehrer who moderates in Miami, nor Gwen Ifill of PBS (who moderates the sole vice presidential debate Oct. 5 in Cleveland) would comment to Memmott. Bob Schieffer of CBS, who runs the last presidential debate in Tempe, Ariz. on Oct. 13, said he had "no problem" with the rules.

Put me down in the "Severely Disappointed" column. This is yet another black eye for print and electronic journalism.

The quartet of respected journalists should tell both Democrat and Republican campaign poobahs to take a hike. The presidential debates increasingly smell like rig jobs with preconceived answers to cream-puff questions. The formats resemble the high-concept scripts of those dopey survivor shows.

We might as well ask Donald Trump to moderate, or let the candidates' wives do the questioning.
John Hanchette ([email protected]) covered politics and other issues for Gannett News Service for more than 20 years, winning a Pulitzer Prize along the way. He now teaches journalism at St. Bonaventure University.
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