Yesterday, I attended a lecture on the presidential debates by former FCC Chair Newton Minow. The event was sponsored by the Adlai Stevenson Center on Democracy located right here in the IL-10 historic Adlai Stevenson home, now owned and operated by the Lake County Forest Preserve. Attending the lecture, meeting Adlai Stevenson III and his wife Nancy, and sharing cookies and coffee with them in the home was fun for me as I grew up hearing about Adlai Stevenson II from my father. Had the intellectual Stevenson II been president in 1952 or 1956, perhaps we would not now be listening to arguments that it is snobbery to aspire to send your children to college.
Minow is famous for describing television as a "vast wasteland" in his 1961 speech before the National Association of Broadcasters, and for having the doomed ship in Gilligan's Island named after him as payback for that comment.
Mr. Minow was unavoidably late due to O'Hare to Mettawa traffic, so we heard a bit from Nancy Stevenson, wife of Adlai Stevenson III, and Minow's co-author Craig LaMay waiting for Minow's arrival. Mrs. Stevenson spoke a bit about the history of the Stevenson home, open to the public by the Lake County Forest Preserve. LaMay talked about the writing of Inside the Presidential Debates: Their Improbable Past and Promising Future with Minow and gave some background on the early debates.
There were no presidential election debates in the early years of our country as debating was seen as undignified. Sometimes surrogates would debate, but not the candidates themselves, and certainly not the incumbent. That all changed with television. Now presidential debates have high ratings, have become big business. They can make or break a candidate, such as Reagan in 1980 and Dukakis in 1988, or as I have observed, they can have no effect at all as in the 2004 debates between Kerry and Bush where Kerry clearly won the debates, but lost the election. It is also arguable that Dan Seals won his debates with Kirk (I've heard Republicans admit as much), but lost the elections.
For the 1960 election, Congress passed a suspension of the equal time rule, requiring the networks to give equal time to all candidates if the major candidates were given free time. The rule suspension allowed the Kennedy/Nixon debate to occur. Here, Minow interjected a story about President Nixon. In the late 1960s, Minow attended an interview with Nixon at the same CBS studio where Nixon's performance cost him the 1960 election. Minow asked Nixon if he remembered the studio and Nixon responded that he would never forget as he grabbed Minow's arm so strongly that Minow said he can still feel it.
The equal time rule was allowed to reinstate thereafter and there were no presidential debates again until 1976 when President Gerald Ford agreed to debate Jimmy Carter. Now, the equal time rule is not seen as a barrier to presidential debates because debates are now deemed to be part of the "news event" exception to the rule.
Minow said that the big question he had for both Ford and Carter was why they wanted to debate. Ford wanted to debate because he was down in the polls to Carter by double digits, so he felt there was no where for him to go but up. Carter agreed because he believed himself to be a good debater and he still needed national name recognition.
Minow then mentioned some of the rules candidates have required such as where the water should be located. In one case, the parties insisted that the water should be on the floor behind the candidates until they realized that the candidates would be seen bending down with their backsides facing the audience.
Minow would prefer the candidates to speak directly with each other, but the candidates prefer to answer a set of questions. He advised that for the upcoming Obama/Romney debates, we should watch for new innovations in technology with respect to viewer participation in asking questions of the candidates.
Both Minow and LaMay discussed the difficulty of the issue of which candidates to include in a debate. The current rule is that to participate in a debate, a candidate must have an average of at least 15 percent support in the current national public opinion polls. As a part of that discussion, Minow, a past co-chair and vice chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates and a current participant, rejected the notion that the 15 percent rule was intended to prevent independent and third party candidates from participating in debates. He sees the 15 percent level as just a number that was chosen and sees risks in maintaining that required level of support and lowering it. Minow also rejected calls to include candidates with past qualifying support levels, but he feels that if a candidate is included in one debate in an election cycle, but loses support below the 15 percent level, that candidate should be allowed to continue to participate in future debates in that same cycle. Minow's thoughts and legal analysis on debate participation can be found in greater detail in this report from The Century Foundation.
The conversation then turned to the state of news and Citizens' United. Minow seems to agree with Brzezinski (as I reported on early this month) about the sorry state of the news media. He said that the Republican debates were the product of the sponsoring networks use of them for spectacle, ratings and profits, and feels that media outlets should never be sponsors. Minow acknowledged that there appears to be a problem with what passes as a "news event" these days. Particularly unsettling to Minow were the question on which the candidates responded by raising their hands with approval, providing no opportunity for discussion. Minow would like to see the networks offering free time to candidates so elections no longer have to be about raising money.
Adlai Stevenson II felt that presidential elections were opportunities for education. presidential debates should help to inform the public about the issues. However, the media's quest for ratings and the apparent lack of tolerance for anything beyond a pat sound byte on any given issue have reduced their educational value. It seems to me that with all of our communications technology, it is time to work to readjust how debates are conducted, the rules on who can participate and the way questions are chosen. Technology may make it more practical to include more candidates and reduce the risks of inadvertently promoting questionable self-proclaimed candidates. It might also open the door for more audience participation in question choice.
I, for one, have grown weary watching the League of Women voters consistently take the tough questions out of the mix for our IL-10 congressional candidate debates. Why could we never ask Mark Kirk how he knew there were WMD in Iraq when he said he had personal knowledge of the same? He won re-election in 2002 by touting that personal knowledge, but when it was found to be incorrect, all our submitted questions regarding the issue were eliminated by the League. Should the debate sponsor be allowed to declare questions off-limits? Why is it unfair to ask a question on an issue a candidate is clearly using to his own advantage? If we cannot ask tough questions of an incumbent on his re-election, then how can we ever know if we should re-elect the candidate or if he's just lied to us and used us ill for political points. If we eliminate questions to make the debates more pleasant for the candidates, aren't we impacting the race just as much as they argue we impact it if we ask the tough questions?