Thursday, 04 October 2012 12:08

Let’s replace those game shows we call Presidential election TV debates

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Optimized-obama-romney-splitin 18 years as a political consultant, manager and strategist i helped prepare nearly 70 candidates for debates: tv debates, radio, civic groups, endorsing groups, you name it.



and the biggest problem i have with political debates is…the debate itself.

they have devolved over the years to contrived media events that are more game show and less enlightened discourse. this is because tv does game shows much better than they ever do enlightened discourse.

the real “stars” aren’t the candidates. they are merely the prepackaged meat puppets engaging in pre-scripted responses to the wrong questions; the only thing anyone takes from these exchanges are the coveted “gotcha” moments, when a candidate goes off-script, forgets his lines, or otherwise botches his delivery of the over-rehearsed script. and that inane moment becomes the lead story of the media until the next news cycle.

the real stars of the “debates” are the media themselves. one, or a few hand-picked talking heads sit neatly reading pre-planned questions from cue cards and pretending to engage the candidates. what they’re really doing is thrusting themselves into the spotlight, full of self-importance and gravity, acting their roles as arbiters of the people. no one elected them except their network ceo’s. and more often than not, they ask the wrong questions: questions designed to trip up a candidate, to highlight their own intellectual prowess, to elicit responses that will keep viewers from changing channels.

the whole charade is then followed by an hour of more innocuous talking heads, spinning their own versions of what just happened, touting their favorites, selling their interpretations of what the candidates “really” said.  their main job, remember, is to keep viewers from changing channels, so their bosses can charge advertisers even more money. this is all part and parcel of what everything that touches american politics today is all about: money.

and we the people tune in, like kids at a busy intersection, hoping to see the wreck when it happens. what we tune in for, presumably, is the truth. what we end up taking home with us in a doggy bag are the “gotcha” moments:

reagan to carter: “there you go again.”

lloyd bentsen to dan quayle: “senator, you are no jack kennedy.”

walter mondale to gary hart:“where’s the beef?”

rick perry, after saying he’d close down three government departments and could only name two: “sorry. oops.”

we deserve better than these events that continue to insult our intelligence, reduce the presidential election to who will win the brand new car after spinning the wheel, and are the most poorly scripted reality tv ever broadcast.

i have a modest proposal that would be more enlightening, honest and informative than the current rut. an idea that would get rid of the superfluous faux-debates, and serve we the people far better. and here it is:

give each candidate 30 minutes of air time, twice, a few days apart.  the democrat leads off one day, the republican leads off the next; or vice versa, it doesn’t matter.

let them speak, without notes, without prompters, for thirty minutes each, straight into the camera, looking the american people straight in the eye. let them say whatever they want about whatever they want, instead of being led by the nose by talking heads who currently dictate the agenda by controlling the questions.

this will accomplish several important things:

  1. it will allow the candidate to show exactly what their priorities are by how much time they spend on a topic.
  2. it will let us know how important those issues are by how the candidate places them in the context of their comments.
  3. it will also be a revealing event by letting us know which issues the candidate feels are not important enough to include in their presentations.
  4. if they are going to attack their opponent, they have to do it straight on: no gimmicks, no 3rd party pac-funded attack ads, no interruptions or interpretations by talking heads or even the opponent, until it’s the opponent’s turn to speak.
  5. most importantly, to me anyway, is that putting a person alone, in front of a live camera, without filters or distractions, for thirty minutes will reveal more about who that person really is and what they really believe than any slick ad or canned rally speech, because i can tell you this from experience: after about 15 minutes, that candidate is going to start to run out of bullshit. at 15 minutes, the stress of the event and the eyes of millions bearing down will bring out the true nature and character of that person. at 15 minutes, they will either start sweating and fumbling, or they will rise to the occasion and show themselves to be what we hope they are. and you the people will finally, really, get a glimpse of who that person really is, and what they really stand for.

and then, when the event is done, we will know what’s left. we will know that the real winner of such a debate isn’t either candidate. the real winner will be we the people, because that’s as close to seeing the real person running for president as we will ever get.



-sid arroyo

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