Debating How to Fix Debates
This morning, a bipartisan working group led by heavy-hitters from recent Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns, chaired by Annenberg Public Policy Center’s Kathleen Hall Jamieson, issued a major 47-page report chock-a-block with recommendations for increasing “the value and viewership of presidential general election debates,” arguing they need to be updated to take into account the rise of early voting, the ubiquity of social media, the spread of alternative media networks, changes in campaign financing and the increase in independent voters.
Opening up debates to more meaningful participation by the public has been a concern of ours going back many years, to the experiments we did with 10Questions.com in 2008 and 2010. (See our past coverage here.) Political debates play a key role in informing voters and putting issues on the public agenda. But despite the rise of real-time networked communications, the only role for voters in most debates is as random question-askers and audience backdrops. So, this new effort by Jamieson and the Annenberg working group merits serious attention.
“Democratizing the Debates” makes several interesting recommendations, including adopting new formats that reduce the role of the TV anchor/performer/journalist moderator and increasing direct dialogue between the candidates, letting the media have free access to the debate TV feed so other channels and services can show it and add their own approaches to how it is used, giving social media platforms a role in framing topics and questions, getting rid of the live audience except during the town-hall debate, and making the secretive process of debate negotiation between the major candidates more transparent. These are all valuable suggestions.
This recommendation for increasing public participation in particular gets my hearty endorsement:
The debates should employ a more formal process of soliciting topics and questions both from the general public through a variety of platforms as well as from a broad group of knowledgeable experts that would include print as well as broadcast journalists….We believe that a full third of the questions by the moderator in the debate should be obtained from non-news sources. On an individual level, this change gives voters and politically interested Americans greater opportunity to shape the debates. Involving the audience, however, demands participation that enhances the debate viewing experience. Audience participation should be much more than a novelty – it should contribute to the greater dialogue and provide a meaningful way to participate. Moreover, audience participation has the potential to help direct conversation and reaction before and after the debate and in the process increase interest.
Likewise, it’s heartening to see the Annenberg group call for shrinking the debate spectacle, eliminating “the spin room, the audience, the beer tents, and the locked-down university campus”—all of which, it argues, add to the cost of the events (driving the need for private sponsors) and distracting from its main purpose. Notably, the group says that Twitter has made Spin Alley into a “tired ritual.” (Paging Jay Rosen!)
Intriguingly, the report suggests the adoption of a high-tech tool invented in 1883 known as a “chess clock,” wherein each candidate gets an equal amount of speaking time and “to take control of the floor, a candidate simply hits the chess clock.” While this innovation could force the candidates into more direct dialogue, somehow I don’t see risk-averse presidential candidates ever agreeing to try it. (Though just think: it would enable the viewing public to evaluate their facility in pressing the button, which is a presidential skill that candidates have not previously been tested on.)
But where the Annenberg group is most disappointing is on the central issue of who gets into the debates. Citing polling showing the 56 percent of the public want to make it easier for third-party candidates to participate in these debates, the working group suggested some minor modifications to do so, such as lowering the polling threshold from 15 percent to 10 percent for the first debate, but failed to achieve an overall consensus on how to seriously address this public concern. (As all of the members of the working group make their livings from working on campaigns for Democrats or Republicans it’s hard to see how they could have possibly made any other decision.)
Taken together, the Annenberg working group’s reforms would likely have the effect of increasing viewership of these seminal events, which have an aura of importance far greater than their actual effect on election outcomes, as political scientists like John Sides remind us. The debates do play an agenda-setting role, both in explicitly affirming certain subjects as “key issues” facing the country, and in implicitly affirming the two-party duopoly as the only legitimate vehicle for addressing those issues. Sadly, the working group does not call for the replacement of the Presidential Debates Commission by a genuinely independent body, like the League of Women Voters, which used to sponsor presidential debates and still plays an important role convening lower-level political debates. And thus, even if many of its more creative ideas were adopted, it remains hard to see how they would actually “democratize the debates” if the meaning of the word “democratize” is to actually be of, by and for the people.
We’re going to be launching a project soon looking at how political debates not just in the United States but around the world are being transformed by interactive technologies and related approaches, so keep an eye on this space. More soon!