There may not be any more presidential debates between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, partly because of the bad aroma that ABC’s interrogation prior to Pennsylvania’s primary left behind in many noses.
In fact, when you consider the rising risks that televised debates pose in the age of YouTube, especially for frontrunners, we’ll be lucky to see any more presidential debates at all.
North Carolina’s Democratic Party cancelled the debate that CBS had hoped to broadcast Sunday, in advance of the state’s May 6 primary. It was expected to be the last of what seems to be an endless string of primary face-offs. Clinton had agreed to it, but Obama wouldn’t commit.
Clinton’s campaign criticized Obama for that, but he shrugged off the criticism. He told reporters that he would rather spend his time meeting directly with voters. Considering the pummeling he took on ABC, who could blame him?
Besides, he said, after 21 debates the two candidates can recite each other’s lines by heart. Right. That’s the trouble. If they did recite each other’s lines, the two liberal Democrats wouldn’t sound all that different from how they sound now, at least, not on the big important issues. As a result, they almost invite questions about the small stuff, the hot-button “gotcha” questions that make exciting television.
Obama looked like he’d rather be anyplace other than the Pennsylvania debate, a heat-seeking scandal probe moderated by ABC anchormen Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos. For about half of its 90 minutes, Obama faced questions that gave more importance to whether he likes wearing American flag lapel pins than how he would deal with job losses, health care, the Iraq war or rising fuel prices.
Clinton seemed only slightly more at ease as she pushed herself through yet another explanation and apology for exaggerating the sniper fire she never actually encountered in Bosnia.
E-mails of complaint poured into ABC and later into North Carolina’s Democratic Party. State Chairman Jerry Meek, quoted in The Wall Street Journal, said many of the messages he received “felt the ABC debate didn’t touch on the most important issues and they were concerned that might happen again.”
Gee, do ya think?
That ominous possibility was revealed by a guy who really ought to know. In a New York Times interview, CBS producer Don Hewitt, who directed and produced the John Kennedy-Richard Nixon debate in 1960, explained that debates entail “a big dose of show biz” and “trying to keep an audience.”
“When you’re in television,” Hewitt said, “that’s your job.”
Indeed, a lot of Democrats are angry at ABC for doing what they do best, which is to put on a TV show. That’s like inviting yourself into a bear’s cave and being surprised that you are mauled.
Republicans were just as unhappy when their candidates were asked in an MSNBC/Politico.com debate, “Is there anybody on the stage that does not believe in evolution?” The half-dozen candidates stood stunned for a moment before three of them raised their hands. Gotcha! In entertainment terms, the moment made great TV. But it was not really fair to the candidates or their audience.
The ABC debate exposed an uncomfortable truth: TV and other new-age electronic media don’t just cover election campaigns. They have increasingly become the campaign.
Contrary to popular belief, presidential debates are not written into the Constitution. They did not even begin with Abraham Lincoln. He was a former congressman running for Sen. Stephen Douglas’ seat when the two toured Illinois in a famous series of debates in 1858.
No, the first presidential debate was also the first televised debate, the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon face-off in the studios at WBBM-TV, the CBS-owned station in Chicago. “That night,” Russell Baker of The New York Times, later wrote, “image replaced the printed word as the natural language of politics.” The image has only become more important since then — and more easily distorted.
Of course, candidates have responded by feeding an industry of spin doctors that has grown since the early 1960s from the dozens into the thousands. If debate formats do more to diminish their client-candidates than to get their campaigns’ messages out, don’t be surprised if more candidates stop showing up. And, if voters feel more insulted by the debate questioners than the candidates, they won’t object.
If so, presidential debates could face an ironic end. They could be wiped out by the medium that created them.