VOTERS NEED REAL DEBATES, NOT SOUND-BITES
Detroit Free Press
November 27, 2011
My apology to the news media, but I have a bone to pick with you. Please set free the so-called political debates. These media events are little more than orchestrated press conferences dwelling on the sound bite at the expense of true political debate in the finest of American rhetorical tradition.
Although we have seen a few superb media moderators and questioners in past debates, the typical role of the news media has become out-questioning one another, asking the question that gets the greatest media coverage, and pushing a mentality of sound bite rather than policy comparison and analysis.
Disillusionment with political debate formats are not new. Viewers of the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, the first televised presidential debates, complained that substance was trumped by style. Political debate scholar J. Jeffery Auer wrote in 1962: "Despite these virtues of the Nixon-Kennedy broadcasts, when viewed in the long perspective of the tradition of American public debating, they must be appraised as counterfeit debates.
At hearings in 1988 by the bipartisan Commission on Political Debates, scholars emphasized the need for debates to promote intelligent policy analysis.
A recent reminder of the state of political debate took place at Oakland University earlier this month. The "Your Money, Your Vote" Republican debate promised to serve the voters. Debate cosponsor CNBC previewed the debate with a statement from CEO and President Mark Hoffman: "CNBC will deliver a substantive and stimulating dialogue that challenges the candidates and provides the answers voters deserve.
Did the debate deliver as promised? Absolutely not.
My 18-year old daughter, getting ready to vote in her first election, and I watched media panelists and candidates pay homage to the sound bite. We were amused by one media panelist who enthusiastically shouted his questions -- actually statements -- at the candidates.
We chuckled at the frustrated facial expressions of media panelists who seemed upset that candidates could not fully explore a complex issue in under a minute. We read tweets from viewers complaining that the candidates were not answering the questions.
The debate's bright spot was when one candidate scoffed at the format. Speaker Newt Gingrich receives my accolade, not for his analysis of policy issues, but for standing up to the impossible-to-answer question posed by Maria Bartiromo, asking the eight candidates: "Down the line, 30 seconds, if you repeal Obamacare, what's the answer?"
Although most candidates bit on the sound bite, Gingrich labeled the question "absurd," saying that 30 seconds was not enough to cover a topic that occupies "18% of the economy" and is "life and death for the American people."
What Gingrich proposed was not new, taking us back to the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. Gingrich indicated that if he won the nomination he would "challenge the president to seven Lincoln-Douglas style three-hour debates with a timekeeper and no moderator, at least two of which ought to be on health care so you can have a serious discussion over a several-hour period that affects the lives of every person in this country."
State party committees, the Republican National Committee, the Democratic National Committee, and the Commission on Presidential Debates need to recognize that debates in their current format do not serve a public interested in serious discussion of critical public policy. The media should relinquish control of debates and report the news, not make the news.
Free and full debate is a cherished American tradition. Political debate must not be counterfeit and must not be held hostage.
Jack Kay is a professor of communication at Eastern Michigan University and co-author of "Argumentation: Inquiry and Advocacy."