What’s wrong with the primary debates

At the presidential debate at Hofstra University three years ago, the packed arena was very quiet. No cheering, no booing, no standing ovations, not because the audience was bored but because of the strict rules that were laid down before the debate began. Anyone violating them would be whisked out. The same applied in every presidential debate and they will be enforced again this year, as laid down by the Commission of Presidential Debates.

The atmosphere in the Republican presidential debates is very different. Not governed by the CPD, these take on a more free-for-all atmosphere, where audiences express themselves with whistles and calls, responding to candidates’ winning lines with cheers and ovations. This is more like it—people expressing their unfettered opinions.

But is it really? The New York Times reports how before the South Carolina debate a CNN director pumped the audience. “Hello, Charleston,” he said. Hearing the tepid response, the program director then cajoled, “You can do better than that! Louder.”

Priming goes on in some churches, the preacher calling for more vigorous responses to prayers; it is common before college basketball games, with announcers egging on the crowd to get behind the home team.

This is a way of ginning the crowd, whipping up enthusiasm—for Jesus, for the Beavers. In the case of the primary debates, it isn’t to praise god enthusiastically or support the home team but to make the TV show more dynamic.

Clearly this makes for good for television. Live TV shows have hosts who warm up the audience before the broadcast and many also us overhead prompters telling the audience when the clap or laugh. The debates are no different, as far as TV executives are concerned. Television isn’t interested in good politics but in good shows. It isn’t interested in better citizens but in better profits.

The strictures governing the presidential debates, as I saw at Hofstra, are too rigid. They are stifling and make for boring TV. People should react and politics should be engaging. But it is another matter to manipulate reactions, particularly when the point is self-interested.

There is no reason why debate audiences can’t follow the same form as they for speeches before joint sessions of Congress. People clap with whatever enthusiasm they choose.

An audience to a presidential debate is more than merely a witness. The CPD should trust that people can be civil and that the debates need not degenerate into soccer stadium riot. Let them react as thoughtful adults normally do.

And on TV’s part, treat the audience as citizens, not customers to be used to boost ratings and profits.



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