Round Up: Audience Questions, Debate Accessibility & Town Hall History

What do some U.S. and European debates have in common? Moderators are letting go of the mic. Plus, a call from “President-elect Donald Trump” during the leaders' debate in Scotland.


Scotland 2016: The BBC Scotland this week kicks off a series of four special topic debates in advance of the May 5 Scottish Parliament election.

These discussions will include questions from audience members chosen for their interest in the issues: tax and spending (the topic of tonight’s debate), health, energy and the environment, and housing.

Holding on Line 1: The phrase “President-elect Donald Trump” was tested during the first leaders’ debate in Scotland last month. The final question to the politicians asked what they would say if they received a phone call from a victorious Trump.

scottish leaders debate trump question

Screenshot from March 24 debate / BBC Scotland

Scottish National Party Leader Nicola Sturgeon, who has already called for Trump to be banned from the U.K., said she’d be on the other line. Watch the video for more responses.

Call for Sign Language Interpreters: For all the technology employed during debates, it seems organizers are not making the debates fully accessible. Disability rights activists criticized the leaders’ debates hosted in March by STV and BBC Scotland for not providing British Sign Language interpreters.

Following similar criticism in the Philippines, interpreters were added to the second presidential debate, which took place March 20 at the University of the Philippines Cebu.

Advocates for the deaf community praised the move but are hoping the inset box is enlarged for the third and final debate scheduled for April 24.

The interpreters drew much praise on social media. As one person on Twitter wrote:

Peru 2016: A week before Peru’s April 10 general election, 10 candidates took part in a televised presidential debate in Lima. Following opening statements on priority actions, the candidates were paired off to address issues and then took questions from citizens. The debate was organized by the National Elections Jury, IDEA International, and the Consortium for Economic and Social Investigation.

Analysis of a “Social Media Election”: Returning to the Irish general election, Laura Slattery of the Irish Times considers the role of social media. One of the debates was a RTE2 Facebook Election special that took place at Facebook’s offices in Dublin.

Attended by political representatives, not party leaders, the arrangement was unusual: Politicians sat alongside members of the audience in a horseshoe-shaped row. The Irish Times’ Harry McGee wrote that the “format lent itself to a more low-key debate, focused on the issues, without the verbal sparring that has been evident in other debates.”

Slattery wrote that the set-up meant “the camera could frame both spiel-delivering candidates and aghast youth in the one shot–or, as happened, they could go ‘long’ on a young woman explaining why the Eighth Amendment was great while simultaneously capturing a boom mic clattering into the head of [Minister for Health] Leo Varadkar.”
The average viewership was 97,000, or about 1/6 of what RTE attracted for its leaders’ debates.

U.S. News

Town Hall Format Has its Roots in Nixon’s 1968 Presidential Campaign: Stephen Battaglio of the L.A. Times takes a closer look at the increasing popularity of the town hall and the impact of taking questions from audience members.

“A debate is like three-dimensional chess or a civil knife fight,” CNN’s Anderson Cooper said. “You have people competing against each other with very strict but clear cut parameters on the time they have for responses. The town hall allows you to have a conversation with the candidate.”

“It’s a rare time in the campaign when the questions come from the voters and not us,” said CNN Washington Bureau Chief Sam Feist.

And those questions often yield more nuanced answers. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews pushed Donald Trump last week on his stance on abortion, but the original question came from a University of Wisconsin at Green Bay student in the audience.

Columnist Jules Whitcover Jules Whitcover praised the town hall forum for being “clearly more conducive to the concentrated interrogation of Mr. Trump that generated his damaging response,” but added that the traditional debate has its place, too.

“Together, the two forms of political combat, steered by knowledgeable and fair moderators, are conducive to the goal of an informed electorate, which should be the prime objective, beyond ever-higher viewership and television revenues,” wrote Whitcover. 

In an interview with TVNewser, Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren said: “I think candidates answer questions differently for the media than for the people. They answer questions more deeply, and you have bigger answers. And they’re not looking for insults from each other. They’re actually answering the questions.”

As Battaglio points out, Fox News Channel’s Roger Ailes and CNN’s Jeff Zucker are no strangers to the town hall format: Ailes created the “Man in the Arena” shows in which Nixon took questions from a representative sampling of citizens during his presidential campaign in 1968, and Zucker scheduled Ross Perot to take questions from viewers who called into the “Today” show in 1992.

There have been 25 town halls so far this primary season, and while their ratings aren’t as high as the debates, they “still manage to attract two to three times the average primetime cable news network audience,” notes Itay Hod at The Wrap, in a eye-opening look at the amount of money networks and cable news channels are making off this year’s election.

Crowdsourcing Science Questions: The nonprofit is calling for one presidential debate to focus on science, health, tech, and environmental issues, and is crowdsourcing the best science-related questions with an online submission form.

“Questions posed by have helped shape the past two presidential elections; in 2008 and 2012, the presidential nominees of both parties provided written responses to the group’s top 14 science questions,” Denise Robbins writes at Media Matters.

Media Matters previously released a report showing the dearth of climate-related questions debate moderators have asked about climate change.

“Putting Voters First” in Indiana: The 9-year-old Indiana Debate Commission, which calls itself “the oldest incorporated and independent state-level debate group in the nation,” has created a platform to submit questions for candidates in Indiana’s Republican primary debate for U.S. Senate.

A televised debate between candidates Marlin Stutzman and Todd Young is scheduled for April 18. Those who submit selected questions may be asked to attend the debate and pose the question during the live broadcast.

“We have taken questions from the public ever since our organization’s first round of debates in 2008, and we are continuing that custom in this debate,” said IDC President Dan Byron, a founding board member. “We strongly believe in our motto of Putting Voters First. We want to know what voters consider to be important issues that candidates should address.”


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