DEBATE RULES STIFLE SURPRISES
Tuesday, October 5, 2004
The 2004 presidential debates are
like a TV miniseries. Although they are not prerecorded, they are practically
pre-laundered of any element of surprise.
This Friday's so-called "Town Hall" debate in St. Louis, in which "real
citizens" will be given the opportunity to direct questions to the candidates,
has been so thoroughly straitjacketed and stifled by rules and caveats
that the chance of viewing any real democracy at work is slim at best.
I direct you to Section 7 (subsection e) on Page 13 of the 32-page Memorandum
of Understanding that was hammered out by the Bush and Kerry campaign
handlers and agreed to by the Commission on Presidential Debates. It outlines
how questions from an audience of 100 to 150 people must be submitted
in advance to a moderator, in this case, Charles Gibson of ABC News, who
will decide which questions will be used. If an audience member deviates
"in any material way" from the submitted question, he or she will be cut
off by Gibson, who will then instruct the audience that "nonreviewed questions"
will not be permitted.
"Moreover," the memorandum says, "the Commission shall take appropriate
steps to cut off the microphone of any such audience member that attempts
to pose any question or statement different than that previously posed
to the moderator for review."
In other words, in the minds of the control freaks dictating the process
of modern politics, citizens are loose cannons and must bear greater scrutiny
than George W. Bush and John Kerry, who presume to lead them. Anyone who
veers from the accepted script will be silenced.
It's sort of like a doctrine of pre-emption, except terrorists and rogue
states have nothing to do with it.
Mitchell S. McKinney, a communications professor at the University of
Missouri, who has analyzed trends in presidential debates, decries how
candidates have gradually gained nearly total control over the Town Hall
debates since the format's inception in 1992, when the first Bush - George
H.W. Bush - ran for re-election against Bill Clinton.
McKinney calls this a "devolution" in which every four years the participants
are granted less and less freedom in the question-and-answer exchange.
"It's almost to the point where the citizens are seen as props," he said.
The Town Hall debate was first proposed by Clinton, who thrived in Oprah-like
settings. He supposedly felt our pain while the elder Bush impatiently
glanced at his watch.
In the 1992 forum, questioners were selected, but they did not have to
write their questions down for preapproval or screening, and the moderator
had no idea what they would ask, said McKinney. They also had the opportunity
to stand and ask follow-up questions.
In 1996, however, when Clinton ran against Bob Dole, subtle changes were
introduced. Unlike the first Town Hall debate, citizens were instructed
to remain seated. No follow-ups were allowed.
In 2000, for the first time, questions posed to son-of-Bush and Al Gore
were written in advance and submitted to the moderator, who then called
on the questioners.
This year, the questions will be preselected and identified as coming
from either "soft" Kerry supporters or "soft" Bush supporters. If they
harden, the moderator acting as proxy for the candidates can, in effect,
tell them to shut up and sit down.
"I've sarcastically suggested that if we fast-forward four years from
now and the candidates continue to control the forum, we simply will go
to Hollywood central casting and get actors to play the roles of citizens,"
McKinney said. "And then we can have the two campaigns come up with the
questions they wished to be asked and give those to the actors to read
from the script at the appointed time."
Controlling the message - for better or worse, that's been the candidate's
mantra ever since Richard Nixon looked shifty, sweaty, pasty-faced and
just plain awful against the telegenic countenance of John F. Kennedy
in 1960. It's not for nothing that both Lyndon Johnson and Nixon avoided
It wasn't until 1976 when a desperate Gerald Ford, lagging in the polls,
opted to spar one time with the equally unexciting (but somewhat craftier)
Jimmy Carter, that TV debates made a comeback. Now, they are a fact of
political life, said McKinney.
"So the question is not this issue of will we have debates; the question
is, as we see every four years, is how many will we have, what type of
debates, what will be the actual rules applied, where will they be, what
dates they will be held - all those questions surrounding the debate."
Nothing must be left to chance.