Seven Republican and four Democrat presidential primary “debates” were held in advance of the Iowa caucuses, and the clear winner is … big television’s bank account. Nothing happened on the debate stages that changed the nation’s political trajectory. The sponsoring television channels, however, had the opportunity to promote their news personalities, boost ratings with political spectacles and haul in big money from commercials.
One must wonder if big television is helping to support the electoral process, or if the electoral process is simply being exploited for television’s financial benefit. The television debate events were sideshows that ultimately failed to enlighten the electorate. The Iowa outcomes were the result of candidate ground games, paid advertising, non-debate media coverage, world events and the electorate’s overall mood.
Only Carly Fiorina seemed to get a temporary boost based on her performance in an undercard debate last summer, but that progress was short-lived and her candidacy never took off, even after getting promoted to a later big stage debate. Trump’s performance as a technical debater has been generally unimpressive, but he still managed a close second place finish in Iowa, even after ditching the final debate.
It is hard to get real insight from any candidate when only 60 seconds is allowed to answer a debate question. No great political mind can explain a comprehensive strategy to combat terrorism or fix a struggling economy in such a short time frame, even if the media’s debate moderator deigns to allow a 30-second, follow-up answer. Thus, candidates are left to do what is easiest in the restricted time format: lob insults, grandstand to the cameras, and trot out clichés as instructed by image coaches and political consultants.
Moderator-directed debate content rambles from one issue to another, with no depth or flow to any subject. In the recent GOP debate, it took just more than a half hour for the discussion to lurch from immigration to electability to Russia to Iran to Bill Clinton to a county clerk in Kentucky. This wasn’t rational political dialogue as much it was a televised game show.
A major problem in these made-for-TV spectacles is that the panelists want to insert themselves into the limelight, essentially becoming pseudo-debaters. In each debate, panelists combined to talk more than many of the candidates. Further, the panelists feel compelled to ask questions to target or antagonize candidates, instead of questions that provide equal challenge for all respondents.
Sen. Ted Cruz was correct to challenge Fox News’ Chris Wallace in a recent debate about the panelists asking questions that invited opposing candidates to criticize the Texas senator. Wallace countered Cruz by snidely saying, “It’s a debate, sir.” Aside from the fact that the event is not a debate in the truest sense, the big problem here is that Wallace is not one of the debaters. Wallace is not a candidate. He has his own weekly interview show in which he can grill politicians as he pleases. When all the candidates are facing each other on stage, they can well attack each other as they see fit, without the prompting of Wallace.
Journalists fail in any debate when they become part of the news. In addition to Wallace, that has been the case for FNC’s Megyn Kelly and the entire panel in CNBC’s October debate in which John Harwood, Becky Quick and Carl Quintanilla were not up to the task.
Yet, in spite of the undistinguished and borderline irresponsible manner in which the debates have been handled, television channels have made millions of dollars in advertising sales and garnered record ratings. Published reports last fall indicated that CNN charged advertisers 40 times the cost of a normal CNN commercial during prime time. The ratio was even higher for CNBC’s debate, when the lowly rated, niche channel charged a quarter of a million dollars per commercial.
Although Trump failed to show at the last debate, his result Tuesday was in line with projections leading up to caucus night. Whatever anybody thinks about Trump the politician, he knows these debates are only for television channels to inject themselves into the political arena and make money. All candidates would be wise to jettison the remainder of the debate schedule, regardless of whether Megyn Kelly is a panelist.
McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle, and author of Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences. This post was originally published in the IndyStar on February 5, 2016. It is republished here with the permission of the author. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @Prof_McCall