April 16, 2015

The Boston Globe’s Joan Vennochi recently wrote: “[D]uring campaigns, it’s all about headlines and blame. It’s rarely an honest discussion of policy . . . .” Debates would seem the most likely forum for “an honest discussion of policy” but televised media control debates and its priorities are to entertain and push the station brand. That means a focus on conflict, scandal, personality, and sound bites. It’s good for the stations but bad for citizens.

For the most part the 2014 debates had to feature brief answers, one minute preferred. The construct of the debates was designed in the hope of producing “fireworks.” Moderators and questioners consisted largely of the media personalities employed by each outlet, the better to identify the brand.

In a Western Massachusetts debate between Charlie Baker and Martha Coakley, the moderator announced a format of “one on one, Lincoln-Douglas style. Each candidate will have thirty seconds to ask their opponent the question, you have one minute to answer, and then there will be thirty seconds for rebuttal.” While viewers might have been impressed with the seriousness of the Lincoln-Douglas format, it wasn’t what Lincoln and Douglas did in their seven debates at all. Each of those encounters began with a one hour opening, a one and a half hour answer from the opponent, and a half-hour rebuttal from the candidate who had opened.

The experience of a campaign through television is one of pictures and emotions, not rational thought. Neil Postman saw the speech of the Lincoln-Douglas debates as “expository prose lifted from the whole page”:

To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connect one generalization with another.

During the Lincoln–Douglas debates Lincoln complained that Douglas was misrepresenting his prior arguments. At Galesburg Lincoln stated: “I take it that I have to address an intelligent and reading community, who will peruse what I say, weigh it, and then judge whether I advanced improper or unsound views, or whether I advanced hypocritical, and deceptive, and contrary views in different portions of the country.” Imagine that..

Part of the show is that candidates are constrained to answer in the format that provides the most entertainment. One “rapid response” round requiring single word answers had questions that begged some explication. When asked if she would approve driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants Coakley strove to offer a complete thought, but the moderator resisted: “yes or no,” “yes, you have to”. When the moderator asked whether the candidates supported or opposed in-state tuition for undocumented students, Baker attempted to indicate backing for an order issued by Governor Patrick but again the moderator was having none of it: “yes or no, yes or no, yes or no, yes or no, yes or no.” Thinking takes time and provides terrible optics – there’s no thinking on television.

Perhaps the low moment – but the high moment for the media business – was Charlie Baker and the fisherman. The image of an emotional Baker set the stage for “breaking news at 11:00” teases and also for a full scale media effort to locate the fisherman.

While the media was pursuing the fisherman, no one thought to ask about the state’s financial condition. Two days after the election the Patrick administration announced it needed about $325 million in cuts to balance the budget. In January Baker announced that $765 million in cuts would be needed. During a pre-election forum before The Suburban Coalition, Mass Taxpayer Foundation’s Michael Widmer accurately projected the deficit total. As Shira Schoenberg of MassLive later reported, several recent governors had left their successors a budget deficit. But it wasn’t much of an issue during the campaign.

Nor was public transportation any concern during the debates. Instead we got questions about Ebola, and on Fells Acres; inquiries into whether either candidate was an insider or an outsider, or had ever smoked marijuana.

Here are the verbs employed in the lead sentences from next day stories in the Boston Globe following each of the six candidate debates during the General Election: “sparred,” “quarreling,” “attacked,” “clashed,” “fought,” and “tangled.”

The practices of media debates infantilize the citizen. They assume that we are unable to deal with an honest discussion of policy, and perhaps unable to follow arguments that last longer than a minute or two. This is driven by the needs of media corporations, not the needs of the commonwealth or its citizens.


As I mentioned Tuesday, I’ll be delivering a paper on the 2014 Massachusetts election at the New England Political Science Association meeting April 26. Tuesday’s post on polling and today’s on debates are a part of that presentation.

Martha Coakley, Campaign debates, Charlie Baker

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