Jeffrey M. McCall: Five keys to improving televised presidential debates
The August televised "debate" among Republican presidential contenders on Fox News Channel was a smashing success by the standards of television executives. It attracted 24 million viewers and was by far the highest-rated primary debate in history. It was the largest audience ever for a program on Fox.
But this was winning ugly for the television programmers. Sure, the program had lots of viewers, but that alone can't be the standard for successful political debate. The spectacle provided too little in the way of insightful political dialogue.
CNN will telecast the next GOP debate Wednesday, co-hosting with Salem Media Group, a company that programs talk radio shows. Debate moderators Jake Tapper of CNN and Hugh Hewitt of Salem should carefully review the Fox event with an eye to serving the electorate rather than hype-driven television producers.
These are primary elections. "Debates" at this point in time are meaningless anyway. They are nothing but one two or maybe 3 questions to each candidate in a mass press conference. Your time would be much better off watching National Geographic or the Smithsonian Channel. Not...
The first suggestion is for the moderators to keep the focus on the candidates. The nation is trying to determine who could be the best president, not which television personalities can enhance their brand. A third of the time in the Fox debate was filled by moderators talking, with the 10 candidates dividing the remaining time. Fox panelists Brett Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace are solid journalists, but none will be the next president. All of the time they used with long-winded questions would have been better spent allowing candidates to explain policy. Most panelist questions took more than 30 seconds to spit out, but a video question about Islamic State provided by a voter on Facebook took only nine seconds.
Next, Tapper and Hewitt need to find a stopwatch and bring it to the event. Fairness to the candidates demands they each get a fair shot at expressing themselves. The clock at the Fox debate was dominated by Donald Trump. Fox execs might have thought that was great for ratings pizazz, but time of possession, like in football, is a huge advantage for the speaker getting the most spotlight. Trump spoke for 10 minutes and 30 seconds, with Jeb Bush getting two fewer minutes to speak. Scott Walker and Rand Paul each received less than six minutes.
The moderators must also remember that the function of these debates is for the candidates to rhetorically separate themselves from each other. That should be done by the candidates, not by the television personalities. The candidates are all public figures and fully capable of attacking their opponents or pointing out opponents' weaknesses.
But the Fox panelists' questions frequently tried to point out individual candidate flaws, as though opposing candidates couldn't find avenues to criticize each other. Wallace accused Gov. Scott Walker of inconsistency on immigration policy, asking, "Are there other past positions we shouldn't hold you to?" Wallace asked Sen. Ted Cruz how he could win the election "When you are such a divisive figure?" Kelly asked Dr. Ben Carson about some of his past remarks, "Aren't these basic mistakes?" And then there was Kelly's "war on women" accusation against Trump.
Any televised political debate is a failure if afterward the voters are talking as much (or more) about the panelists than the candidates. CNN's Candy Crowley demonstrated that in the Obama-Romney presidential debate of 2012. CNN's John King did it with his attempt to attack Newt Gingrich in a 2012 primary debate. And Kelly created the same problem with her recent performance.
Above all, the panelists must recognize that a good question in a one-on-one journalistic interview is not a good question in a political forum with multiple candidates. Political forum questions should provide all candidates with an equal challenge of response, set the framework for debate and then be finished, allowing the candidates to clash and differentiate themselves. Otherwise, what should be a political debate deteriorates into a 10-pronged, unwieldy series of mini news conferences.
Finally, Tapper and Hewitt need to come to the event with their backbones. Don't allow candidates to butt in out of order, as happened too often in the Fox debate. Don't pander to Trump or whoever else tries to steal the show. Mostly, Tapper and Hewitt will need their backbones to stand up to television execs who would rather create flashy television than reasoned political dialogue.
Jeffrey M. McCall, a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., is author of "Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences."