Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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June 9, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

THE TOWNHALLS....Ezra Klein coments on the fact that neither Obama nor McCain has any interest in allowing the press to moderate their proposed series of townhall meetings:

This is possibly the first time in memory that the media's actually suffered for doing a bad job, They pissed off both candidates with their shoddy debate moderation during the primary campaign, and so now they're being shunted aside from the bigger prize: The townhalls in the general. It's sort of beautiful.

It is sort of beautiful. On the other hand, I'm going to wait and see how these things turn out before I cheer too loudly. As bad as the press performance was — especially in last year's MSNBC Hillary pile-on and this year's ABC flag lapel pin lollapalooza — it's possible that allowing the candidates to turn these townhalls into 90-minute commercials could end up pretty badly too. After all, recent debates aside, the most common reason for shutting out the press isn't a principled aversion to trivial questions, it's a highly practical aversion to being forced to answer difficult questions. The decline of the White House press room may be partly the press's fault, but it's even more the fault of presidential communications shops that have gotten astronomically more sophisticated about shutting down the media and limiting presidential exposure to highly controlled, camera-friendly events over the past few decades. This isn't a trend we should be celebrating.

Anyway, not saying this experiment will be a bust, and I think unmoderated townhalls are absolutely worth a try. But this isn't 1858 and these candidates aren't Lincoln and Douglas. Caveat emptor.

Kevin Drum 12:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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Damn right. The only thing worse than a free press asking stupid questions and focusing on trivialities is not having one at all.

Posted by: Dilan Esper on June 9, 2008 at 12:53 PM | PERMALINK

The debates should be moderated and all questions posed by 6th-grade school children. They ask the best questions and candidates can't avoid answering as easily as they can with a teevee talking head.

Posted by: BubbaOkie on June 9, 2008 at 12:56 PM | PERMALINK

Actually Dilan, I would assert that our propaganda corps was worse than no press at all. They gave idoitic zealots the imprimatur of respectability. In quiet, we are more rational and our fears not so stoked by mass bigotry.

Posted by: Sparko on June 9, 2008 at 12:59 PM | PERMALINK

Remember that study a few years back, that founds that reading a candidate's website resulted in more accurate information about that candidate than reading newspaper stories?

Posted by: gussie on June 9, 2008 at 1:00 PM | PERMALINK

Depends on how the audience is chosen. Some kind of lottery approach for people within the zip code in which it's being held might work, split equally between people who identify themselves as Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.

Posted by: catherineD on June 9, 2008 at 1:01 PM | PERMALINK

But the American people are not idiots! In both 2004 and 1992 (and probably the others in between), town hall debates were more substantive than moderated debates.

Personally, I'm a fan of returning to the panel of moderators. You could have Paul Krugman and Greg Mankiw moderate a debate on the economy; Richard Clarke and Richard Armitage moderate a debate on foreign policy, etc.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot on June 9, 2008 at 1:03 PM | PERMALINK

The townhall meetings should be set up so that each candidate has to take questions from both their supporters and from those supporting the other candidate. And they have to allow follow-ups. Otherwise both candidates will just stick to their talking points and try to turn each appearance into an extended campaign commercial. If there are follow-ups, by regular people who are not planted supporters of the campaign, at least they will have to suffer the embarrassment of being told on national TV that they haven't answered the question.

McCain will especially vulnerable as all his flip-flops will be exposed...over and over and over and over and over again.

Posted by: majun on June 9, 2008 at 1:03 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, the moderators don't offer too much lately. How about the candidates in a room without moderation, just whaling-on each other verbally. I say that not only because is favors my candidate, but also because I think we'd get a good sense for what's in the candidates mind. Otherwise, a moderated, well-mannered, debate becomes a contest on who can stay most on-message and excel at deflecting the uncomfortable question until the 90 seconds are up.

Posted by: rusrus on June 9, 2008 at 1:06 PM | PERMALINK

Instead of celebrity corporate 'journalists,' could not any debates be moderated by real journalists from independent media, academics or officers from NGO's?

Posted by: Brojo on June 9, 2008 at 1:06 PM | PERMALINK

Before the 3rd townhall someone on CNN or MSNBC will bring up a McCain/Obama Dream Ticket.

Posted by: tom.a on June 9, 2008 at 1:07 PM | PERMALINK

I remember when these debates used to be moderated by independents like the League of Women Voters.

But nobody cares what Execrable Ezra thinks. There are more important things happening. The Stevenote is happening right now!

Posted by: charlie don't surf on June 9, 2008 at 1:28 PM | PERMALINK

Let me propose the following for a John McCain nick-meme: McNeoCon, or McNeoCain!

Posted by: Neil B on June 9, 2008 at 1:36 PM | PERMALINK

Some such events will probably take place, but don't bet the farm on it. McC is playing the Alpha male game of insisting on his format, his rules, time and place of his choosing, and then -- when Obama refuses to bend over --- comes this:

"Sen. McCain was scheduled to appear at Federal Hall in New York Thursday evening. "There will be two chairs onstage. The question remains whether Barack Obama is in one," the McCain campaign said. A spokesman for Sen. Obama confirmed he wouldn't attend the forum, and no joint appearances have been scheduled."

Posted by: penalcolony on June 9, 2008 at 1:40 PM | PERMALINK

The League of Women Voters is the logical choice, although there could be other similar groups who are offered the opportunity to participate. Not only would this enliven the campaigns, it would strengthen what used to be a potent force for good government.

Posted by: Eric on June 9, 2008 at 1:43 PM | PERMALINK

I'm with charlie don't surf. These things have deteriorated mightily since taken from the LOWV and handed to the so-called Presidential Debate Commission, which is primarily dedicated to seeing that minor-party candidates are not included, and which otherwise hand the whole things over to the corporate broadcast media.

Make Jim Lehrer the moderator. Bob Schieffer (so old he still has some journalistic integrity) could alternate. No more pretty talking heads like Charlie "Capital Gains" Gibson and George "How's my hair" Stephanopoulos.

Posted by: Cal Gal on June 9, 2008 at 1:50 PM | PERMALINK
After all, recent debates aside, the most common reason for shutting out the press isn't a principled aversion to trivial questions, it's a highly practical aversion to being forced to answer difficult questions.

The real point to look at is that the press has screwed themselves with the public so badly that the politicians can shunt them aside with impunity. In any prior presidential election if candidates tried to shunt the media aside the complaints would be legion.

This year FOX was excluded with impunity and, in spite of FOX complaints, with great joy and approval. Let's watch to see who complains about this and see what traction the complaints get. My bet? Little or no traction at all.

The media is going to be treated like the skunk at the picnic, and there will be no regrets from the public. They've trivialized themselves so badly that there is nothing they can do about it. The rare relevant "hard question" is no longer expected.

They deserve to be shunted aside and everyone knows it. They may have to hire a new crop of top level media faces to recover any credibility, and that is unlikely.

Posted by: Rick B on June 9, 2008 at 2:06 PM | PERMALINK

I'm a little bit bewildered as to how they can even call the recent ditz-a-thons "debates". Nothing was debated. It was just an extended Sunday morning talk show. How does asking each candidate a set of personal questions even vaguely qualify as a debate?

Posted by: Joshua Norton on June 9, 2008 at 2:17 PM | PERMALINK


can we get google to moderate the debates?


Posted by: eightnine2718281828mu5 on June 9, 2008 at 2:24 PM | PERMALINK

Of course we need the media. I want to be watching when they bully some young person into asking: "Senator McCain. Diamonds or Pearls?"

Posted by: thersites the peace troll on June 9, 2008 at 2:30 PM | PERMALINK

Rick B.: The media is going to be treated like the skunk at the picnic, and there will be no regrets from the public. They've trivialized themselves so badly that there is nothing they can do about it.

This is a fascinating discussion. Finally, we have found an issue on which both the left and right fully agree!

Posted by: Everett on June 9, 2008 at 2:32 PM | PERMALINK

I'm in favor of candidates stating their positions in writing on the web. Talk is cheap, and glibness and quick-as-a-trial lawyer debating skills are a good spectacle, but a poor way to pick a president.

Posted by: Luther on June 9, 2008 at 2:40 PM | PERMALINK

No moderators, no live audiences. Just two guys for 90 minutes every week until the election, each with a microphone and a camera. If there must be public participation, allow the public to submit topics for consideration and choose one from the top ten at random each week.

Posted by: Bob Munck on June 9, 2008 at 2:51 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe we could get Inkblot to moderate and Domino to pass the microphone between the 2 candidates.

At least that way the questions would be a little more probing, as compared with what spews forth from MSM moderators' mouths these days.

Posted by: optical weenie on June 9, 2008 at 2:54 PM | PERMALINK

get Inkblot to moderate

Everything would be okay until Inkblot asks: "So tell me, Senator Obama. What do you like better, rats or mice?"

Posted by: thersites on June 9, 2008 at 3:15 PM | PERMALINK

Not to rain on everyone's parade, but how would you keep "plants (confederates of the candidates)" out of the audience?

Posted by: CT on June 9, 2008 at 3:24 PM | PERMALINK

This certainly isn't Lincoln-Douglas. Their format included a one hour statement, 90 minute opposing statement and a 30 minute rebuttal. Try that in front of an ADD-like American public.

What needs to be done is to have longer than sound-bite statements, including the reasoning behind each proposition and sufficient time for rebuttal and counter-proposals with few only minimal restrictions on time. This should be to Obama's advantage in that McCain probably can't talk on one topic extemporaneoulsy for more than two minutes without saying something dumb.

Posted by: natural cynic on June 9, 2008 at 4:18 PM | PERMALINK

Random thought:

Each candidate submits X questions to be asked of their opponent. They have a maximum amount of time say, 5 minutes, to answer each question. As they approach the end of their allotted time, they will see the green to yellow to red lights and their time left. When time is up, their microphone will be turned off until the next question. If they use less then 5 minutes, it gets added to their pool of unused response time.

There is no moderator.

There is no audience.

And no one will watch because they will be watching American Idol.

Posted by: e henry thripshaw on June 9, 2008 at 5:11 PM | PERMALINK

Instead of a debate, make it a brainstorming session, with one or two general problems to solve, like "Make health care available and affordable for every American." Alternately let each candidate express his solutions/rebuttals for a few minutes at a time. At the end of the hour, it should be apparent which candidate has more to offer on a particular subject.

Posted by: AJB on June 9, 2008 at 5:21 PM | PERMALINK

Obviously, because they'll be wearing Snidley Whipless type mustaches.


Posted by: Dr. Morpheus on June 9, 2008 at 5:28 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, mhr, but do please finish the story. Don't leave us hanging.

And all those folks left in droves when Johnson signed the civil rights legislation. The fact is that Douglas' political legacy now finds home in the Republican party.

Posted by: gex on June 9, 2008 at 5:37 PM | PERMALINK

I like e henry thripshaw's at 5:11 PM, and suggest that the debates should be broadcast on all networks and all live cable channels. That doesn't completely eliminate the American Idol effect, but I'd certainly buy TiVo stock.

Anyway, the impact of a debate isn't from watching it live, but from the soundbites that are presented out of context on the news shows and blogs thereafter.

My idea for the mikes: each candidate has a button that turns off his own mike and turns on his opponent's. When one of them uses up all of his time on the clock, his mike goes off and the other guy's is on for the rest of the show.

Posted by: Bob Munck on June 9, 2008 at 6:47 PM | PERMALINK

I've found that the best kind of debates are those that do a few things:

1) Devote a substantial amount of time to audience questions. You can't completely screen out the campaign plants, or even worse, the pompous blowhards who deliver long, rambling speeches in place of questions and annoy the hell out of everyone, but for the most part, despite the occasional outlier, the questions people ask are meaningful, substantive, and on-point.

2) Allow applause, cheering, booing, hissing, laughter, etc., from the audience, within reason. Obviously, you would want to prohibit noisemakers and demonstrations, or catcalling to such an extent that one candidate can't speak through the din. But debates that prohibit any audience reaction except for applause following the concluding statements are really sterile, lifeless affairs.

3) Don't have strict time limits on the candidates' answers. Again, the "within reason" caveat applies, and if a candidate starts hogging too much time, you need a moderator with a good sense of when to interject a simple, "okay," or "all right," to get them to start wrapping it up. Debates or forums that apply a loose timekeeping regime of around 2 minutes per answer, give or take 30 seconds, are better than those that apply a tight 1 minute regime.

4) Allow the candidates to address each other.

5) Remove physical barriers like podiums or big hulking tables. Just some stools and small stands for glasses of water.

Basically, the idea is to maximize the interaction and conflict between the candidates, with as much audience input and reaction as possible. The only jobs the moderator has are to avoid getting bogged down and to keep things from getting out of hand.

Posted by: Another Chris on June 9, 2008 at 10:01 PM | PERMALINK



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