DC at Night

DC at Night

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Debating the Debates

While experts debate the actual importance of presidential debates, there is no question that those match-ups over the years have produced memorable moments. In the very 1st televised presidential debate in history in 1960, a tanned, made-up John Kennedy was widely believed to have fared better on TV than his opponent Richard Nixon, who declined to wear makeup and appeared to have beads of sweat on his upper lip. Then there are the famous lines. Ronald Reagan's "There you go again" dismissal to Jimmy Carter. Bill Clinton's "I feel your pain." George H.W. Bush's glancing at his watch. Michael Dukakis' impassionate handling of a question asking if he would favor the death penalty if his wife was raped and murdered. Al Gore looking smug and bored.

And in the next few weeks beginning tomorrow night, we will see the latest in the series of face-to-face confrontations between presidential candidates - 3 debates between incumbent Barack Obama and GOP hopeful Mitt Romney.

So, as citizens and voters, what exactly should we be looking for? To help answer that question, the First Amendment Center and the National Communication Association jointly sponsored a Beyond Wins & Losses: A Citizens' Guide to the 2012 Presidential Debates forum at the Newseum. Five panelists participated. They were:

  • Annie Groer, a PoliticsDaily.com columnist, who when she covered politics for the Orlando Sentinel was a panelist on the 1988 presidentail debate between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis
  • J. Michael Hogan, a professor of Communications Arts and Sciences at Penn State
  • Charlton McIlwain, associate professor of Media, Culture, and Communications at NYU
  • Kathryn Olson. Communications professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and
  • Sander Vanocur, a veteran of more than 40 years in print, radio, and televisison who is the only survivoring participant in the very 1st televised presidential debate in 1960 between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon
In the days leading up to the latest debates, both the Obama and the Romney campaigns have been trying to lower expectations for their candidates. The Daily Show correspondents hilarious spoofed that process by contending that Romney's people would consider it a victory if their candidate did not fall asleep during the 90 minutes, while Obama's people said the president could claim victory if he didn't expose himself on national TV.

The GOP campaign is already on record as saying they would not let their campaign be dictated to by fact-checkers.  Then there is Romney's own telling quote about answering questions: "You get to ask the questions you want," Romney told an interviewer "And I get to give the answers I want."

In light of such a political climate, all 5 panelists agreed that we should not expect to witness anything too daring during the debates. "Now, not losing is more important than winning," McIlwain said. "If neither candidate does anything or says anything outrageous, then the little things will be what we will be talking about in the days to come."

Olson said the 2 candidates each have an important task in the debates. She said the American people are always looking for "a delicate balance" in their president between a masterful, powerful leader and a man of  the people. "For Obama, the question is where is the leadership. For Romney, he has to show he's like the rest of us, especially after the 47% comment disparaging half the American people," Olson said.

But the panelists agreed that the debates still have importance.

"It's like a job interview," Groer said. "And in this age of reality TV, the people want to make the decision who goes off the island. Any kind of window we do get into their (the candidates') thought processes does help us to understand them."

Vanocur said he believed that televised debates are good for Democracy. "The TV camera is neutral. It shows the good and the bad and the indifferent," he said. He firmly believes the debates do matter to the eventual outcome. Referring to Reagan's "there you go again" comment to Carter, Vanocur said. "You don't know whether it was spontaneous or if it was programmed. You only know it was devastating."

Recently, there has much debate about the formats of the debates themselves. Critics say that calling the current debates actual debates demeans the word. "I'm not sure we want a real debate. Today, competitive debaters talk 360 words a minute. Some people like to cite the Lincoln-Douglas debates. But they were 3-hour debates on a single issue. I don't think we can tolerate that," Hogan said.

But whatever value we place on the debates, the panel agreed that despite the rhetoric to opposite, the candidates worry greatly about the debates and the outcome. "In this age in which image matters, it becomes a question of how these 2 candidates come across when they are actually standing across from one another," McIlwain said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Here are some tips from the panel about maximizing your debate watching experience.
Annie Groer
Look for something you don't already know about the candidates. Do some homework first so you don't have to take whatever they say as the truth. Also, don't watch the debate with people you agree with; watch with people of the other party. That way you'll hear them groan I don't believe he just did that or I can't believe he just said that. 
McIlwain
Says he is going to go in the other room and listen, but not watch the debate on TV. You should try to focus on what is being said, not just on what is being seen.
Olson
Watch for that balance between the democratic idea (of man of power and man of the people). Ask yourself - who is the person that is going to be best for the unimaginable moments that will come.
Hogan
At Penn State, we bring 300 students in to watch the debates and then turn the TV off so they can't rely on the spin doctors. They have to make up their own minds. Don't put the emphasis on who won or who lost. That is the wrong question. Instead ask what did you learn or not learn from the debate.
Vanocur
Take a drink and do all of the above.

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