Televised Presidential Debates: Advocacy in Contemporary America

Televised Presidential Debates: Advocacy in Contemporary America

Televised Presidential Debates: Advocacy in Contemporary America

Televised Presidential Debates: Advocacy in Contemporary America

Synopsis

This vital study employs a "television perspective" in examining the sponsorship, formats, nature, and impacts of presidential debates, stressing the 1960, 1976, 1980, 1984, and 1988 debates. The authors integrate contemporary theory and research about the television medium and influence with extensive research on presidential debates. Specific topics include how presidential debates have evolved as a function of the participation of the broadcast industry, how debates are structured to fit the demands of the television medium, how candidates' verbal messages must be tailored to the medium, how candidates' visual messages are defined through the medium, and the persuasive effects of mediated debates.

Excerpt

Televised debates between the nominees of the two major parties have become standard fare in contemporary presidential election campaigns. In recent campaigns for president, debates are considered a major communication event. Kathleen Jamieson and David Birdsell (1988, pp. 5-6) observe: " 'Debate' has become a buzzword for 'serious politics'. . . . When debates are announced, movement in the polls slows; in anticipation, the electorate suspends its willingness to be swayed by ads and news."

Yet, televised debates among presidential candidates are not simply communication events; they are uniquely television events. They are broadcast to a mass audience, most of whom view them in the privacy of their own homes. Televised political debates have moved to what Susan Drucker terms "electronic public space," and because the nature of debate changes with the context, this shift has produced "a new form of debate" (1989, pp. 7, 20).

Ironically, television, the communication medium for modern debates, has been largely overlooked. Instead, media professionals and academics have continued the longstanding tradition, which dates to classical Greek and Roman oratory and was institutionalized in the American democratic tradition, of stressing the content of debates. The emphasis is placed squarely on what the candidates say in debates. Hence, in assessing candidate effectiveness in debates, media analysts in their commentary, and debate scholars in their more considered analyses, tend to focus on the specific arguments raised, the quality of reasoning and documentation . . .

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