As Presidential Races Change, Media Coverage Must Adapt
Columnist, Dante Chinni, The Christian Science Monitor
A debate, as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is "a contention by words or arguments ... as a regulated discussion of a proposition between two matched sides."
If you have watched any of the "debates" among the 2008 Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls, you might be wondering if US news media read the dictionary much. The events featuring eight potential Democratic and 10 possible Republican nominees, each lined up on their respective stages, look and feel less like debates than talent shows. Each candidate wants to stand out and be noticed, without saying or doing something that might embarrass himself or herself.
As painful as they can be to watch, these early debates are nothing new. The Democrats' first primary debate for the 2004 presidential race was held on May 3, 2003 - there were nine candidates in that one. You probably don't remember it because it wasn't televised until hours after it ended and not televised at all in some parts of country.
And that's what's new for 2008. The media are treating these contests as something significant. CNN has gone so far as to run debate countdown clock on the days of its sponsored forums.
What has happened that the news media suddenly feel the need to pump up these contests? It's more than just hype gone wild. First, 2008 is going to be a big election year. With no clear nominee on either side, big issues looming, and a war on, the stakes are high.
Beyond that, these "I need a memorable sound bite" gatherings have additional weight because you might actually want to know who these people are if you choose to vote in primary season. With possibly 20 primaries moved up to take place on Feb. 5, 2008, it's likely you will go into the voting booth with a laundry list of options on your ballot.
In the past, by the time most voters actually got a say in the primary race, the field had been winnowed down by the early primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and other states. The race was so long, candidates decided that if they couldn't get a win - or a second- or third-place finish - fairly early, they would drop out.
But the schedule is so compressed now, it's hard to imagine that any candidate with a prayer and a few bucks will drop out before Feb. 5. So Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas or Democrat Mike Gravel, former senator for Alaska, might be options for you.
That's where the debates come in, and that is a problem. The broadcast and cable outlets like debates. It's what they are familiar with. And despite the events' many flaws, seeing two or three candidates on stage together answering questions about their positions gives viewers a longer and more in-depth look than they'll get in TV ads or most quick news appearances. …