"Debates" as Circus

Perhaps in order to make use of free advertising as much as for any other reason, the republican candidates have allowed themselves to be manipulated into some sort of circus act, such as the “dancing bears,” under the euphemism “debates.” None of the campaign “debates” are actual “debates” but merely sideshows sated with sound-bites. A much better venue would be discussion-oriented sit-down sessions in which the candidates introduce their own subjects and then take the time to discuss their varying approaches to the nation’s problems.

Such an approach would be untenable now since there are too many candidates to allow for it; however, it could be pulled-off in groups of two or three and certainly should be the protocol for the actual “debates” once the field is winnowed down to two or three. This should also be the approach taken for the campaigns next year leading up to the election once the parties choose their respective candidates. Watching a two- or three-hour session between Obama and Gingrich or Romney could be enlightening rather than being bored to tears by an argumentative gaggle of moderators managing bells, whistles and lights and playing the gotcha game, with the candidates acting like schoolchildren.

Such sessions could be devoted to specific topics or, since one area of government impacts every other area, comprehensive discussions over an adequate period of time. I’ve watched little of the debates but enough to recognize that the self-appointed “stars” of the shows are the moderators, who seem far more interested in arguing their views rather than listening to those of the “debaters.” Their questions are longer than the answers – or at least seem that way – leaving the impression that they figure neither the candidate nor the public is up to speed and has to be educated before an answer can be understood. The networks, both traditional and cable, have their own agendas and seem anxious to advance them.

The media types classify themselves as journalists but often they are entertainers as well, such as when they do their “shows” on radio or TV. Scott Pelley of CBS, for instance, does “straight news” but probably considers himself more of a commentator. In the early days of the nightly news programs – the days of Huntley/Brinkley, for instance – fifteen minutes was all that was needed to report the world news of the day. Later, the time was increased to a half-hour (about 22 minutes of actual news), with longer programs such as CBS’s Sixty Minutes devoted to more comprehensive treatments of news events. In every case, the bias of the media entity could be engaged in an attempt to make the public think one way or another.

But the mother-lode of entertainment resides in the “debates.” News-people can take excerpts from these acts and use them in their supposed news programs. In this way, they can ridicule the candidates, taking nearly everything out of context if, indeed, there ever actually is a context. For instance, Rick Perry was ridiculed on one of the democrat-oriented networks the other day for noting the voting age as twenty-one, counter to Amendment XXVI of 1971. It was a simple mistake – the age had been 21 for scores of years until changed to 18 – but the gaffe was too good to let go. The same was true when he failed to remember one of the three cabinet departments he would eliminate if elected.

President Obama once indicated that there are 57 states in the Union. Perry would have done well to mention that. The president also referred to a military medical corpsman as a “corpse-man,” but Perry didn’t mention that. Brian Williams asked Perry about his sleep habits, implying that the governor surely could not sleep peacefully at night in light of the executions that take place in Texas prisons. Perry could have harpooned him for such a stupid and arrogant exhibition of sophomoric banality, but he didn’t. Herman Cain was ridiculed unmercifully for seeming not to know about Libya and the seven-month slaughter that Obama introduced to that benighted nation without so much as a fare-thee-well from the Congress.

The festive atmosphere attending the “debates” also makes them little more than circuses, with the attendees booing or applauding as the spirit moved them. These confrontations should never take place in front of an audience, since the principals could be expected to do more posturing for the cameras and mikes than disseminating information. In fact, they would be better done via radio, when complete attention could be given to what they say and not how they comport themselves before the cameras. One has only to remember that famous Nixon/Kennedy debate of 1960 to know this.

The stakes are too high to allow the frivolousness that accompanies the “debates.” Nor are the “debates” fair since the moderators give time to the candidates not on an equity basis but on their whims, those of the moderators, that is. Depending upon whom they want to ridicule the most or whom they want to help the most, they can configure these clambakes any way they please. By their willingness to be a part of these mismanaged affairs, the candidates become willing tools of people more interested in whatever turns them on than on speaking to the public good.

As the field is winnowed, the candidates left standing should insist to the networks that they intend to configure the “debates” in such a way that actual debating will take place, first among themselves, then with respect to the general election. To do otherwise is to allow themselves to be duped by the well-rehearsed moderator smoothies, who have complete control of what happens, the “stars,” in other words, and the establishments they represent. If the networks don’t like it, they can lump it, but that’s not likely to happen. The commercials are too important for that. Additionally, the “debates,” in the proper configuration, should be conducted only on the public television stations, with moderators (and commercials) a thing of the past as the candidates take over the management involving very high stakes.