To put it mildly, this has not been the most substantive of presidential campaigns. We’ve endured endless discussions about flag pins and lipstick, Paris Hilton and former pastors, and a whole raft of controversies so meaningless they fly right out of our heads as soon as the next absurd attack ad is unveiled and played dozens of times on cable news. But on Friday, Americans will finally get an extended look at Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama talking about issues. That is, we will if the journalists moderating the debates will let us.
The debate moderators have some ground to make up. It’s not just that the day-to-day coverage of the campaign has been focused on pointless trifles, but the primary debates appeared designed to test candidates’ abilities to answer the most absurd questions journalists could devise.
In the primary campaign, there were 32 nationally televised debates, more than ever before. In an era in which the typical soundbite of a presidential candidate on the evening news is less than eight seconds long, so many debates might have offered voters an opportunity to learn more than they would ever need to know about where the candidates stood on issues and what they wanted to do as president. Instead, the media figures who moderated the debates — mostly television news personalities — seemed to work overtime making sure that substantive policy discussion would be overwhelmed by fluff and trivia. As Media Matters Action Network discovered when analyzing the 2,300 questions asked in these debates, substance often took a back seat to personal questions, “gotcha” questions and just plain ridiculous questions.
Candidates were asked to name their favorite Bible verse, forced to choose between the Red Sox and the Yankees, queried about what costume they’d wear on Halloween, and asked question after question about polls and political strategy. They were forced to defend statements made by their supporters, required to rehash campaign gaffes, and told to raise their hands in response to numerous questions, as though they were schoolchildren.
The problem wasn’t just with the questions that were asked, but with those that weren’t. Only 9 percent of the questions concerned the economy, which has become the most important issue in the general election. Only six questions out of the total of 2,300 touched on the growing crisis in the mortgage industry, which was already making headlines in 2007. Only two questions touched on the issue of declining wages. There were dozens of questions about oil prices, but only three about conservation and renewable energy. There was not a single question about the Bush administration’s unprecedented use of signing statements, its dramatic claims of executive privilege, or its extraordinary secrecy. The debates featured only one question about wiretapping, and only two questions about the prison at Guantanamo.
If nothing else, the shabby treatment was bipartisan: The Democratic and Republican candidates faced equally bad questions. As the primary campaign went on, furthermore, the debates became less and less substantive; by the campaign’s final period, non-substantive questions outnumbered substantive ones. And the candidates at the top of the polls, including Messrs. Obama and McCain, were more likely to be asked trivial questions than those at the back of the pack.
The blame, however, should not be spread equally. Two networks stood out for sticking to matters of policy: PBS and Univision. Every question asked in the PBS debates was substantive, as were 82 percent of the questions asked in the debates sponsored by Univision. At the other end of the spectrum, only 46 percent of the questions asked in the ABC debates were substantive, as were only 45 percent of the questions in the Fox News debates.
The upcoming presidential debates will be moderated by Jim Lehrer of PBS, Tom Brokaw of NBC, and Bob Schieffer of CBS; PBS’ Gwen Ifill will moderate the vice-presidential debate. While all four are respected journalists, so are many of those who moderated the primary debates that received, with good reason, such poor reviews. One hopes they will focus on some of the critical issues that got ignored during the primaries.
We’ve been told repeatedly that this is an historic election, and the challenges facing the country could hardly be more serious -from a faltering economy to tens of millions without health coverage to two wars still being waged overseas. Forty-eight years after John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon walked into a television studio together for the first televised debate, these events are still the best look most citizens will get at their next president and vice president, and the best chance they have to assess their habits of mind, their political philosophies, their perspectives on our country and the world, and the things they want to do once in office. During the 2008 primaries, that opportunity was squandered. It would be a shame if it happened again.
Paul Waldman is senior fellow and director of special projects with Media Matters Action Network.