Round-Up: The Presidential Debates and Civic Engagement – Or, “Gathering Around the Electronic Hearth”

How to view and respond to the first presidential debate, whether you're watching TV, streaming live, hanging out in virtual reality, or calling into C-SPAN. Plus the latest on fact-checking, moderators, and more.


Promo for presidential debate at Hofstra Sept. 6

This Week in Debates

Panel sessions from last week’s Rethinking Debates mini-conference, which was organized around the new Rethinking Debates report, are available at Civic Hall’s YouTube channel. Check out the smart discussions about technology/media partnerships and debate innovations at the state and local level. This Fast Company story has more on the report and how to improve the presidential debates.

We’re grateful to all the participants, especially David Birdsell, dean of Baruch College’s School of Public and International Affairs, who addressed the role of debates in his response to the report.

Now we can’t wait for NBC anchor Lester Holt to kick off the first presidential debate of 2016 with a question for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton about “achieving prosperity,” “securing America” or “America’s direction.”

Baruch College is hosting pre- and post-debate panel discussions, and they’re open to the public. I’ll be there tonight to hear the experts share their thoughts and also to watch the debate with students using Microsoft Pulse to record their reactions.

And since we can’t all have front-row seats, here’s a look at where technology and attempts at civic engagement converge …

Watch Where You Are

  • In an attempt to engage the public “in substantive conversations before, during and after the debates,” the Commission on Presidential Debates is trying a number of new initiatives this year, including inviting Facebook and Google to provide debate moderators with data on “what people are searching and saying about the election, the candidates, and the issues.” Facebook will help source questions for the candidates for the second presidential debate, the one held town-hall style.
  • Twitter this week announced a similar initiative with the CPD, whereby it will provide moderators with “an analysis of trends in election-related discussion on Twitter and will curate questions from Twitter users related to stated debate topics for inclusion at the moderators’ discretion.”

“It’s the moderator’s ultimate discretion, but the commission is inviting that public participation,” Adam Sharp, Twitter’s head of news, government and elections, told Mashable. “It happened in one of the primary debates. After 50 years of people yelling at their TVs, for the first time, someone got their question answered live.”

  • Here’s how that happened; I’d be very surprised if it happens again during the presidential debates.
  • Also, tweets that contain the hashtags #debates or #debates2016 will feature a new debate emoji icon:
twitter debate emojicon
  • The Commission has more on how social media conversations will be tracked and analyzed during the debates by MIT Media Lab’s Electome Project and the Social Media Analytic Command Center at Illinois State University.
  • Facebook, the “exclusive social media sponsor” for the first and third presidential debates, will help media and students use Facebook Live to broadcast what’s happening at the debate sites. “People on Facebook in the U.S. and around the world will be able to watch these videos live, ask questions and comment with their reactions,” reports the CPD.
  • Snapchat will provide coverage of each debate in “live story” format, making it possible for Snapchat users to experience the debates from the perspectives of students, volunteers, media and others. The CPD notes that these “compilations of Snaps are designed to encourage the conversation long after each debate is over.”
  • The debate live stream will be available at various websites and platforms, including: ABC News, Buzzfeed News, CBS News, CNN, C-SPAN, The Daily Caller, Facebook, Fox News, Hulu, Huffington Post, NBC, PBS, Politico, Telemundo, The Wall Street Journal, Twitter, Univision, Yahoo, YouTube.
  • Twitter will live stream the debates at debates.twitter.com in partnership with Bloomberg Media, with curated tweets appearing along the side. Horia Ungureanu of Tech Times explains how it will work, and how to watch. 
  • ABC News teamed up with Facebook to use Facebook Live to broadcast the debates, and YouTube will live stream the debates from PBS, Telemundo and Washington Post.
  • Note: Expect to see micro-targeted and rapid-response ads on Facebook and Twitter. The Wall Street Journal’s Natalie Andrews reports on how campaigns, super PACs and advocacy groups will be paying for premium spots in online news feeds and search results during the debates.
  • NBC, meanwhile, will stream the debates in virtual reality, complete with a virtual democracy plaza where you can attend debate watch parties and ask questions of political experts. Who says this election isn’t for real? 
nbc democracy plaza
  • If you want to share your thoughts without hitting “post” or “send,” C-SPAN’s telephone lines will be open both before and after the debate.

Voter Education

  • As part of the Commission’s young-voter initiative, college students from around the country took part in a town hall on Sept. 7 at Dominican University of California to develop a series of questions for the presidential candidates.

Their deliberations, and the final six questions—a very smart grouping submitted under the categories of education, immigration, social justice/civil rights, foreign policy and income inequality and economy—are available at Collegedebate16.org. Now let’s see if any of the questions make it into the debates.

  • WatchTheDebates.org, a partnership between Microsoft and PBS NewsHour, has launched. Visitors can watch every presidential debate since 1960 and use Microsoft Pulse, a viewer-reaction tool, to register their agreement or disagreement with what’s being said by the candidates.

The platform allows users to track how candidates debate specific issues, and how other viewers respond to the arguments. We hear that Monday’s debate may be up on the site as early as Tuesday …

Watch the Debates


Thoughts on Fact-Checking

  • UPDATE 9/26: Bloomberg will fact-check live, on-screen, during the debate, reports Politico
  • “There’s certainly a need for more probing questions and follow-ups by moderators, particularly with a candidate as inexperienced and unprepared as Trump,” writes David Uberti at Columbia Journalism Review. “But on the narrower task of fact-checking, asking moderators to make the myriad instantaneous editorial decisions about when and how to jump in is an incredibly heavy burden, and they might not be best suited for it.”
  • “I don’t think it’s a good idea to get the moderator into essentially serving as the Encyclopedia Britannica,” Janet Brown, executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, told CNN’s “Reliable Sources” on Sunday.
  • Media Matters composed a list of do’s and don’ts for moderators and media, starting with (surprise!) fact-checking the candidates in real-time. 
  • The Des Moines Register weighs in with an editorial on the role of debate moderators and why it’s imperative for them to “do more than pose questions and keep time.”
  • Media columnist Margaret Sullivan offers five things moderators must do, including #2: “Be well-prepared enough to assert the truth in real time.”

“They can get some help with this, through some real-time fact-checking by the networks airing the debates,” added Sullivan. “We’ve seen some from cable networks during the campaign in those bottom-of-the-screen captions known as chyrons. (‘He’s not,’ said one of them when Trump insisted President Obama was the founder of ISIS.) More of this, please!”

  • Angie Drobnic Holan, editor of the Pulitizer-prize winning PolitiFact, told Joe Garofoli, the San Francisco Chronicle’s senior political writer, that PolitiFact staff could fact check in near real-time, but they haven’t been asked.

“These debates haven’t caught up with 21st century technology yet,” she said. “The format has stayed the same. These are the most important events of the American election season. A lot of people base their decision on who to vote for. But there is some hesitation by the media to disrupt this tradition.”

  • Jesse Richman, an associate professor of political science and international studies at Old Dominion University, argues that doing away with debate moderators could improve the political conversation in a number of ways, including allowing candidates to fact-check each other.

“The limited rebuttals of the current format will be replaced by a flexible format moderated by the clock to allow candidates to contest the other’s exaggerations,” writes Richman, adding that the debate would move faster, go deeper, and be more civil and informative.

By the Numbers

  • The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania released a white paper on how much and how many of the presidential debates people actually watch.

The paper draws on Nielsen viewership numbers, a national survey and focus groups with debate viewers. In terms of viewers who have watched any of the presidential or vice-presidential debates, debate viewership went up from 27.3 million households for the first televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, to 46.2 million households for the first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012. As a percentage of U.S. households, however, viewership fell from 59.5 percent in 1960 to 39.9 percent in 2012.

  • This year, the sky’s the limit, and the media and advertisers are taking advantage of the moment.

“It’s a throwback to a phenomenon that has essentially disappeared in the era of digital media,” Andrew Heyward, a former president of CBS News, told The New York Times. “This is Americans gathering around the electronic hearth.”

More Reading

  • Donald Trump Is a 1960s Technology Critic’s Worst Nightmare: “Trump rose to fame in the television era—and largely on television, as a reality-TV star—but he is running for president on the other side of yet another technological revolution, in an era that might be described as post-TV,” writes Adrienne LaFrance.
  • When Donald Meets Hillary: “The first debate will be a matter-meets-antimatter conjunction at a single point. Live sports, from the Olympics to the Kentucky Derby, differ from other TV programming and compel live viewership because no one knows beforehand how things will turn out. The same is true of live presidential debates, above all any including Donald Trump,” writes James Fallows.
  • The State of the Presidential Debate: “This year, the candidates will appear together on the stage of a university lecture hall. The event will be called a ‘debate’ and it will be broadcast live, but it won’t really be a debate and a lot of people will watch clips later,” writes Jill Lepore, who also talked with NPR about her story and what an ideal debate would look like.