Tag Archives: journalism

What a Real Debate Looks Like

** FILE ** In this Sept. 23, 1976 file photo, President Gerald Ford speaks as Jimmy Carter listens during the first of three debates, at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theater. (AP Photo, File)
President Gerald Ford speaks as Jimmy Carter listens during the first of three debates in 1976

In this election cycle there is a common misperception that it is the moderator’s job to comment on a debater’s lies or false claims.  But that’s the job of the other debater. In a true debate the participants aren’t responding to reporters, but fact-checking each other.  

The political season always brings out a cycle of “debates” finally agreed to by cautious candidates, news organizations, and the Commission on Presidential Debates. Though everyone involved has different motives, the one most commonly expressed is that debates offer the public the chance to compare candidates side by side. In the unfettered give-and-take of a debate we are supposed to learn about issues that divide and sometimes unify those running for the same office.

In their current form, however, debates are fettered; they can’t achieve the lofty goals we have for the form.  The usual “debate” format devised by campaigns and participating media amounts to little more than a joint press conference.

A debate done correctly should deliver a purposeful clash of views, where claims and evidence are tested against a series of counter-arguments.  Among others, Aristotle was certain that acts of public advocacy had a cleansing effect on the body politic. He believed we are wiser for subjecting our ideas to the scrutiny of others. This may sound lofty and abstract, but most of us do a form of this when we talk through an important decision. We often want friends to help us see potential problems to our proposed course of action.

The problem is that candidates usually fear unmediated and extended exchanges. They and their staffs believe that a serious gaff can sink an entire campaign. So they hedge their bets. They agree to “debates” if they are moderated by a panel, or at least a single journalist. This is when the process begins to go south. It’s further doomed when each side is given only a minute or two to respond to statements from the other side.

There is also a widespread perception that it is the moderator’s job to comment on lies, half truths or false claims.  But that’s the job of the other debater. In a good debate the participants aren’t answering reporter’s questions, but fact-checking each other. The advocates directly address the claims and arguments of their opposites on what are usually several broad but important subject areas.  When one issue seems to have been exhausted, a moderator may steer the pair to a related issue, and then get out of the way.

Perhaps one the purest political debate available on video dates back to 1992.  Talk show host Phil Donahue invited Democratic Party primary contenders Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown to debate on his show.  After a brief introduction and commercial Donahue simply introduced the two men and moved out of the way.  The debate at a single round table was direct and mostly uninterrupted.


Lincoln and Douglas debated for hours by themselves without the assistance of others. Indeed, a prime form of Saturday night entertainment in the 19th Century was a formal debate in a town’s biggest venue. The whole process of seeing two leaders explain their ideas under the scrutiny of an interested audience could be invigorating. By contrast, the short question-based formats commonly in American political debates generally ruin the chance to see how much a candidate actually knows beyond their memorized campaign sound bites.

Our system conspires to protect candidates and allowing them to stay in a comfort zone of clichés and bumper sticker retorts.  Debates should expose relevant facts and hard truths that are initially hidden by glib statements of resolve.  We rarely let the candidates follow a single thread long enough to see if they really understand those truths.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu

Looking for a Paper in Baltimore

800px-Newspapers-20080928 commons wikimedia
                      Commons wikimedia

A news site online is a step back from journalism on display in a public space.

Recent work took me to a hotel on the edge of the Inner Harbor in downtown Baltimore.  Those few square miles have everything a city might want: one of the two finest aquariums in the United States, scores of restaurants and shops, classic wooden ships moored in the small rectangular harbor, and a ring of convention hotels. Just a few blocks back sits the legendary Camden Yards baseball field, just an over-the-fence shot from Babe Ruth’s birthplace.  And further up Platt St: a stunning cathedral-sized train shed full of fascinating remnants of the Civil War.

One  morning I needed a news hit beyond the chatty hosts of the morning talk shows.  And I was tired of reading headlines from my tablet, with its cramped size and its jumpy touch-screen.

What I didn’t expect was that it would be a major challenge to buy that simple artifact of the civil society, a real newspaper.

Of course it’s old news that hard copies from nation’s biggest journalistic institutions are on the way out. The thought of a newspaper subscription never comes up among my students, though some find their way to these outlets online.  According to the Pew Research Center, only a quarter of millennials show any interest in political or civic news; a fact that doesn’t bode well for the future.

 If we think an occasional glance at Gawker or CNN or Fox News will keep us in the loop, we’re badly mistaken.

Even so, one would expect to pass street kiosks and stores still hawking hard copies of papers from the many cities in the nation’s populated northeast corridor.  After all, half of all news subscribers in the nation still read paper-only versions.  Yet on that day this vital instrument of the open society was mostly absent from the public square.

The clerk in the store on the first floor of my posh hotel didn’t flinch when she said they carried no papers.  None?  So I started a slog across the harbor plaza, passing the tall ships, the overpriced chain restaurants selling all things fried, and perhaps another fifty establishments waiting for buyers of what most of us don’t really need (i.e., a candy store the size of a supermarket).  Surely there would be a corner box selling The Baltimore Sun or USA Today, or The New York Times or perhaps the Washington Post.  No luck.  Then into a Barnes and Noble in its stunning Power House venue next to the National Aquarium.  Yet again I seemed to be striking out. Then a staffer told me to ask someone behind the check-out counter.  And, sure enough, from under a desk in a corner of the store came a copy of The Post.  Why it was hidden from public view I will never know.  I felt like a citizen of Soviet times picking up some illicit samizdat from a dissident.  Even pornography seemed to have better placement in the store.

This is all dismaying.  Access to a news site online is not the same as news displayed in the places we frequent. The front pages especially of the nation’s tabloids were always written to draw in the passerby.  Their “screamer” headlines were meant to turn recent events into news you somehow needed.  Anybody walking down a street in the 1970s or 80s got a register of the nation’s pulse even if they weren’t buying.

Seeking out these sites online against mountains of competitors is a step towards the isolation of national and local news, with the consequence of equal isolation of the civil sphere from the rest of American life. These agents of democracy obviously hang by a frayed thread, competing in a carnival of more provocative digital content. It’s no surprise digital news platforms are in financial trouble, and that newsrooms once built for sizable staffs are now some of the lonelier offices on the planet.

The deeper problem is that there are too few newspapers sitting in the driveways or front steps of homes in our neighborhoods.  If we think an occasional glance at Gawker or CNN or Fox News will keep us in the loop, we’re badly mistaken.  And at about 200 words a minute, television news reduces events to headlines rather than discursive coverage. The ubiquitous newspaper available on a city’s streets remains the much richer form of reporting, and an important marker of our connections to this culture we call our own.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu

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