Candidate Debates

I watched one democratic candidate debate. I was impressed with the production values, the awesome lighting, the game show sets and the technological wizardry. Ultimately my wife and I got bored, deciding it was pretty poor entertainment. We went into town to see “Gone baby Gone,” which is not only good entertainment, it is genuinely thought provoking.

I’ve thought a lot about why the candidate debates seem so vapid to me, so devoid of any value, either as entertainment or as a basis for understanding who to vote for. As my teenagers use to say, “there is no there there. “

The issues which deeply concern Americans are all political land mines. Candidates either prance around them like reindeer in a frying pan or shy away completely for fear of losing in the ratings. In fairness, there is a lot at risk. Like the gladiatorial contests of ancient Rome, only one performer emerges the winner — though today’s losers at least survive.

Americans care about the war, the economy prosperity, job opportunities, healthcare, the environment, immigration, school quality and to some degree terrorism. These are all deep and complex issues that cannot be discussed in one minute deliveries or glib sound bites which is what good entertainment demands. The TV production formula for candidate debates is similar to that for a successful comedy series – short, punchy deliveries designed to elicit emotion rather than thought. TV characters hardly ever settle into a long thoughtful discussion of anything. TV scripts must be crisp, staccato and relentlessly entertaining – attention deficit hyperactivity disorder on the air! There is no requirement for truth telling. Say it and it will be true.

The debates are in fact entertainment. They are promoted as such. They are formatted and staged as such. The candidates, like the shows, are made up, dressed for TV. Conformation and demeanor are critical. Performers are rated for delivery more than substance. The producers understand that the debates are competitive entertainment and can produce respectable audience share. The following day, pundits review the performance. Annenberg Media’s Fact check.Org site puts the lie to much of what is claimed by candidates. But how many Americans rush to the site to see who lied, who exaggerated and who told the truth? Will Facebook or MySpace comprise the next basis for choosing our leaders?

Few TV formats lend themselves to politics. If we truly want to get to know our candidates and understand their policy objectives, we will need them to declare themselves in depth on topics of interest to Americans. We will need to read what they have to say or hear them talk and debate in long form as if they were on Jim Lehrer, Bill Moyers, Face the Nation, Terry Gross or Weekend Edition.

Given the slaughterhouse environment of journalism and politics, the risk to candidates is huge. But the risk to us of not understanding who these people are and what solutions they might bring is much greater. (494 words)

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