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A radical suggestion for the presidential debate…

I’ve been trying to figure out how to get this to someone at CNN before the next Democratic Presidential debate.  So far, I’ve had no luck finding any confirmed e-mail addresses for anyone who might have any influence there.  E-mails I’ve sent to “best guess” addresses haven’t bounced, but it may be that CNN simply quietly kills them instead of rejecting them.  In either case, I’ve received no replies to indicate my message got through to anyone.  I’ll keep trying, but they guard their people well…

I also sent a similar missive to David Leonhardt, at The New York Times, in response to his complaint about the amount of interrupting that happened in the first debate, pointing out that, had it not been for their ability to interrupt, the candidates I most wanted to hear would hardly have been allowed to speak.  No reply from him, either.

19 July 2019

In the first Democratic presidential debate, most of the questions were directed toward the few top-polling candidates.  Lesser candidates had to resort to interrupting the moderators and other candidates even to be allowed to speak.  I remember, in a particularly egregious example, John Delaney trying to make a point on immigration (which sounded like it was probably different than what anyone else had been offering and, perhaps, more interesting) and being shut down by Rachael Maddow with a promise that she would come to him in his turn — which she then never did.

It became quickly clear, in watching the proceedings, that there were 3 or 4 of the 10 candidates that the moderators were really interested in hearing from, another couple that they threw a few bones to, and the rest that they intended to ignore to the largest extent possible.

I have a suggestion: Perhaps your moderators for the upcoming debate could actually direct more of their questions toward the lesser-known candidates!

Here’s the thing:

If I want to know what Bernie Sanders or Kamala Harris or Cory Booker or Elizabeth Warren or Pete Buttigieg or Joe Biden have to say on any given topic, all I need to do is open today’s paper or look at any Internet news source or turn on the TV — what they have to say is a daily obsession of political reporters.  All those candidates need to do is open their mouths and someone will report on it.  I’m actually kind of tired of hearing from them.
On the other hand, if I want to know what the other candidates have to say on some topic — well, I’m out of luck.  Political reporters aren’t interested and, so, they won’t tell me.

The reason for that appears to be that people of the press — and the moderators are rather resolutely people of the press — are completely obsessed with “the race”, rather than with governance.  Who’s going to win? Can I be the first one to call it and show everyone how insightful I am?  Or, short of that, can I incite some kind of nastiness that might upend it?

For that reason, they appear to be obsessed with polls.  They assume whoever is leading those polls is all anyone wants to hear about; and they resolutely avoid giving anyone else any exposure, any opportunity to turn themselves into one of the front-runners by actually getting their message out into the aether.

That might be justified if we were late in the campaign, when everyone had already been tested by voters.  But, we are not.

At this point, many months prior to the first caucus or primary, “popularity” is almost entirely a matter of “how many times have you heard someone’s name in the news?”  And, how many times I’ve heard a candidate’s name in the news is driven not by how serious they are as a candidate, and not by what their positions on policy are; it is driven entirely by what catches the fancy of political reporters, who have a well-known bias for controversy (potential or real), fame or infamy (either one will do), quirkiness, and current political and cultural fashion.

In short: those “lesser” candidates might not actually be so “lesser” if reporters gave them as much free publicity as they give to the “greater” ones!

Please keep in mind that the purpose of the debate is not supposed to be to make the moderators look clever, or to promote anyone’s candidacy, or to stir up the “horserace” aspect of the campaign that so obsesses political junkies.  It’s supposed to be about informing the voters as to what their choices are.

You don’t facilitate that by getting the leading candidates to regurgitate whatever has already been reported about them ad nauseum or to pick petty fights with each other over subtleties and minutiae; you do facilitate that by actually giving the other candidates a voice.


As a aside:

This mimics what I observed in the 2016 campaign on the Republican side.

Once Trump announced his candidacy, he was all the political reporters ever wanted to talk about.  His every utterance — no matter how absurd or offensive or ignorant or just plain stupid — was guaranteed to make the front page and the first three minutes of the broadcast.  No other candidate could even get as much as a mention.

I clearly remember, the day after the infamous Republican candidate debate that Trump refused to participate in, that The Boston Globe ran three front-page stories about the Republican primary campaign — and every one of them led with Trump!  Even the story about the debate, itself, led with Trump, despite the fact that he hadn’t even been on the stage!  You had to read to paragraph 8 (or maybe it was 6 or 10 — not, at any rate, anywhere near the lead) before any other candidate was mentioned — and then only to report what he had said in response to some accusation Trump had thrown.

I actually largely blame the political press for Trump’s election: no other candidate had a chance once the free media publicity machine got started.

I have a (not entirely whacko) theory that there was a certain intent behind that: I suspect that many political reporters were (at least secretly in their hearts) not only amused but elated at the prospect of the Republican party self-destructing — and making itself ridiculous in the process — by nominating someone so patently unfit as the candidate to run against the Hillary machine.  I don’t think there was an actual and intentional conspiracy to get the Republicans to nominate Trump; but I suspect that a great many reporters found it easy to go along on that ride because if felt so delicious to them….


Update, 31 July 2019

I don’t know whether anyone received my e-mails (and I know no one read this post), but the debate last night was far better than the previous one in terms of hearing from the “lesser” candidates.  The press favorites were still center stage (figuratively as well as literally) but the others got a chance to tell us what they were about and how they were different from those favorites.  I suspect this one outing won’t make much of a difference for them, but it was refreshing to hear what they had to say.

© Copyright 2019, Augustus P. Lowell

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