Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV

By Johnson, Thomas J. | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV


Johnson, Thomas J., Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV. Alan Schroeder. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. 271 pp. $17.95 pbk.

Pollster Richard Wirthlin likened presidential debates to a game of roulette: "There's no telling which way that marble will bounce."

Indeed, Alan Schroeder, professor of journalism at Northeastern University, argues convincingly, through both analysis and historical example, that despite the best efforts of the candidates and their handlers to control the drama of presidential debates, they remain unpredictable because they are broadcast live. As he notes, "No matter what protective measures the campaigns take, a televised debate cannot be completely domesticated. At a time when the race for the White House has become ever more sanitized and risk-averse, presidential debates represent a rare walk on the wild side."

Even a casual debate viewer cannot help but notice that the debates are hardly debates at all but a series of preprogrammed responses to questions. However, Schroeder provides a fascinating insight on the degree to which the campaign handlers attempt to control the environment of the debate through negotiating complex production agreements that cover everything from angle and height of the podium, to studio temperature, to lighting, to where the spouses are located in the auditorium.

However, the main point that Schroeder returns to is the handlers' inability to control the debate environment because the debates are played on live television. The negotiated production documents that cause so much wrangling among the candidates' camps are not slavishly followed during the actual broadcast, so that one catches unguarded moments such as when George Bush looked down to check his watch during the 1992 Richmond town hall debate. Similarly, the days spent rehearsing answers to questions and conducting mock debates cannot prevent gaffes such as when Gerald Ford insisted that Eastern Europe was not under Soviet domination. The unpredictable nature of the debates and their inherent dramatic conflict, coupled with the fact that the debates offer the only opportunity for the public to see the candidates side by side to size up who is better suited to be president, means that while interest in presidential campaigns has declined along with the number of people actually casting a ballot, the debates continue to attract large audiences.

Unlike most studies of presidential debates that focus on one election, Schroeder's book chronicles the 1960 to 1996 general election debates, with passing mention of the 2000 primary debates, to achieve his goal of examining how the debates and coverage of them have evolved during the last forty years. …

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