Presidential debates: Neither presidential nor debates

by Jim Longworth

Back in the dark ages I studied the fine art of public speaking and debate. That’s when the term “forensics” stood for something other than “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” Ironically, though, a crime of sorts has been committed, and the perpetrators work for CNN. More on that in a moment.

For most of our nation’s young history, political debates were a respected form of campaigning and voter education, where two candidates would square off, each taking opposing views on a particular issue. Whoever gave the most logical and convincing arguments was considered the winner. Were it not for this intellectual sparring, Abraham Lincoln would have never become president. His 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas set the stage for his victory in 1860, and an eventual spot atop Mount Rushmore. History tells us that each Lincoln/Douglas debate lasted three hours. Under their format, the first candidate was given one hour to open. His opponent then spoke for 90 minutes, followed by a 30-minute response from the first speaker. No wonder voters back then were so informed.

Nearly a century later, the American electorate was treated to the first presidential debates broadcast on live television. The participants were Vice President Richard Nixon and Sen. John Kennedy. Over a series of four televised debates, the two combatants were brilliant and thorough, despite the fact that the time constraints were much more limiting than those faced by Lincoln and Douglas. In 1960 each candidate was allowed an eight-minute opening statement and a three-minute closing. In between, they both had two and a half minutes to respond to each question. Nixon won on points, but Kennedy won the White House because he looked better on TV. That dichotomy proved the downfall of modern-day presidential debating.

It would be 16 years before political hacks would allow their candidate to risk a televised duel again (LBJ was not photogenic, and Nixon wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice). When the process resumed, the medium began to take precedent over the message, and presidential debates would never be the same. Thoughtful, detailed answers were replaced with one-liners and sound bites directed toward questioners who demanded terse, watered-down responses. Only in 1992 did we get a glimpse of old-style debating when Ross Perot used his humor and business savvy to shame Clinton and Bush (the elder) into admitting that our nation’s finances were in a dangerous mess. Perot seemed to have won the debate, and at one point the three candidates were running neck-and-neck in the polls. That’s when the Bush camp launched a smear campaign against the Texas billionaire who then dropped out and later re-entered the fight, finishing third. Since then, the corrupt two-party system has managed to exclude strong third-party candidates from televised debates, including Perot in 1996 and Ralph Nader in 2000 and 2004. So much for serious discourse.

In ensuing years, the quality of TV debates has declined, hitting an all-time low with CNN’s recent dog-and-pony shows in which the cablers teamed with YouTube, who supplied viewer videos as part of the questioning. The result has been entertaining television, but meaningless debate.

Questions have been submitted by a variety of snowmen, animated characters, loopy liberals and a scary-looking right-winger sporting a gun in one hand and a Bible in the other. There was even a question about whether the Yankees were better than the Red Sox. Ringmaster Anderson Cooper has allowed what could have been a respectable forum to deteriorate into a circus, where each caged candidate gets thrown a bone and told they can only chew on it for 30 seconds. Moreover, Cooper has continually mismanaged the proceedings by giving some candidates far more face time than others.

The CNN/YouTube programs are an affront to the tradition of presidential debating with the result being candidates who learn how to pander for a few seconds, rather than ponder for a few moments. I have no problem with YouTube as a medium, but that doesn’t give them or CNN a license to turn an important event into a prime-time cartoon cluster. If CNN wants to be the news leader, then let them produce a series of debates in which only three candidates appear at one time, then rotate the other candidates throughout the series. In addition, each candidate would be given five to six minutes to respond to questions from real journalists. That would give viewers a chance to properly evaluate presidential hopefuls in a fair, balanced and dignified forum.

Had YouTube produced the 1858 debates, the harsh-looking, high-pitched Lincoln would have been disoriented trying to explain an issue in 30 seconds, and it’s possible that slavery would still be legal today. The fact is that real leaders can’t move a nation to change with shallow sound bites. They need time to formulate their positions, and we need time to digest their answers.

Not surprisingly, the CNN debate debacle coincides with TV’s trend to produce programs which cater to younger audiences with shortened attention spans. Is it any wonder, then, that today’s kids can’t identify America or England on a map of the world? That’s because many of us in the reality-TV world of media enable and validate dysfunctional learning habits. Don’t worry if you can’t read. No sweat if you can’t formulate a coherent thought, or write a sentence properly. Just communicate with e-mail slang, send us your sophomoric videos and we’ll see if the next president can get down on your level to respond. CNN used to be a responsible news organization, but they have temporarily lost their way. Until they can make a course correction, I urge viewers to skip the YouTube debates and watch something more educational, like “The Biggest Loser.”

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” which can be seen on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV 48 (cable channel 15).