Let the Candidates Debate

Matt Towery

6/15/2011 7:15:00 PM - Matt Towery

The recent CNN debate among the current candidates for the Republican nomination for president illustrated once more that political debates have become more about the moderators and reporters, and also about endless social media and technical gimmicks, than about the candidates themselves.

Before I criticize, let me offer a defense of the moderator of the CNN debate, John King. He suffered some pretty bad press reviews for his repeated tries at interrupting the candidates in order to keep them within the 30 seconds in which they each were allowed to speak.

King was a victim of the way the debate was set up. He was merely trying to keep a really bad format on track.

These Republican candidates are potential challengers to President Barack Obama. With two hours available to debate, why not let each candidate answer the same question? Why not give them a reasonable time to answer?

Here is the real answer to that question: The debate was all about the media, not the candidates.

Think of the assorted media technical devices and the personalities that had to be made relevant in order to meet the specifications of the modern-day "techno-social" debate platform. And think of all the media that were involved as players in this debate.

The debate -- and I use the term loosely -- included questions from remote locations, where "town hall meetings" had been assembled. Then there were the questions from CNN's media partners, both the major newspaper in the debate's host state, New Hampshire, and also the leading television station. And don't forget questions from the moderator and his Facebook friends. All that media noise can consume two hours with not a minute left over.

The format was great for those asking questions. They were allowed to drone on and on. But the candidates were given very little time to respond. My guess is that questioners got more airtime than the candidates. Then there was what is termed "clash" in debate lingo. Face-to-face confrontation.

But wait -- there wasn't any in this debate. The closest we came to seeing real clash was when the local TV anchor had her 15 minutes of fame as she tossed self-styled "tough" questions at the candidates. I can imagine that she worked for days thinking up her "gotcha" questions. After all, she had to appear as if she belonged in the big leagues.

One of the prominent storylines that emerged from the New Hampshire debate was that the candidates refrained from attacking one another.

Little wonder. When you only have 30 seconds and you're therefore pushed for airtime, that leaves you few opportunities to aggressively go after your fellow candidates -- at least not without coming across as being vicious and petty.

It would have been more appropriate to let the candidates ask questions of one another. But that, of course, would have meant less time for answering vital questions, such as whether a candidate prefers "American Idol" or "Dancing With the Stars"

To that urgent question, Newt Gingrich replied immediately "American Idol." Sorry, Newt, but knowing you, I doubt you could have named the winner of that show this year if your life depended on it. More importantly, neither Gingrich nor any of the other candidates should have been subjected to such nonsense.

Nevertheless, answers to these trivial questions could have important implications. Tim Pawlenty was forced to choose between Coke and Pepsi. He said, "Coke." I guess that answer reduced substantially any support he might otherwise have enjoyed from Pepsi or its huge employee base in Texas.

Of course, if you had asked a journalist the same question, the response would have been, "As a journalist, I am not allowed to choose sides among types of cell phones or colas."

Then there was what I termed "the big freeze" in this contest. From the number of questions tossed to Herman Cain and Ron Paul, you would have thought that they were the obvious frontrunners in the race. Meanwhile, the true frontrunner -- at least for now -- is Mitt Romney. He spent much of the debate just looking presidential. And former Speaker Gingrich, who had to fight to even participate in the contest, spent most of his time looking frustrated.

Hey, I'm not a CNN basher. For one thing, they are headquartered in Atlanta, where I live. But I hope all of the networks and news associations learn a big lesson from this debate. It's shouldn't be about the media. It should be about the candidates.