Presidential Debates: Journalists Keep Out

Article excerpt

HARVARD has come up with a plan that will help us know the presidential candidates so well we will probably all gag before the 1992 campaign concludes.

The proposal calls for nine 90-minute programs devoted to the presidential campaign on each of the nine Sunday nights before the election. That means the programs would start even before Labor Day, on Sept. 5, 1992.

There would be two presidential debates, one vice presidential debate, five live conversations with the candidates on major issues, and, on the last Sunday, closing speeches by the two major parties' nominees.

Setting aside for a moment the possibility that the voters would feel like they were being bludgeoned by politics, with people ready to vote for Mickey Mouse if only to get their regular programming back, I have one bias against such a format.

Journalists would become just as much a part of the programs as the presidential candidates themselves. All the modern presidential debates, even back to the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960, have been structured around journalists' questions as much as candidates' answers.

Frankly, I wish we'd butt out.

One of the problems with the modern presidential campaign is that it has become a celebration of the superficial, with photo opportunities and visits to flag factories. Television journalists frame the campaign.

With only a few minutes a night to make their reports, these journalists, with the cooperation of candidates, set the stage for the sound-bite shallowness of the campaigns.

There has to be an alternative, and Harvard's plan is a start. But if I had a choice, I would either have debates with ordinary people asking the questions, or better yet, sponsor a debate with as little structure as possible. Let the candidates have at each other.

During the 1988 presidential campaign I worked for the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, a newspaper located in Massachusetts but with a substantial circulation in New Hampshire. There were 13 presidential candidates on the Democratic and Republican sides. The editor devised a citizens panel of ordinary people and invited the candidates to answer their questions. The paper promised the candidates that their answers would be edited as little as possible. …

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