Last Friday's PBS debate between the six Democratic presidential candidates illustrated that these forums can be useful ways of getting beyond the sound bites that often characterize campaign coverage. Granted, this debate ran for two uninterrupted hours -- something that may only be possible on public broadcasting. But other things about the format could be adapted to the networks.
Candidates were told to police themselves in terms of time. And, surprisingly enough, faced with the expectation that they would follow the rules and behave civilly, they did. Except for former California Gov. Jerry Brown, who brought up the Gennifer Flowers-Bill Clinton scandal and insisted again on giving out his campaign's 800 number, urging viewers to send contributions. Expectations of civility, intelligent questions by moderators Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, the chance to explore issues at greater length -- all of these factors helped to produce a forum in which viewers could size up the candidates as more than talking heads.
Debates like this one bring a breath of fresh air to a presidential election process that has grown dangerously stale.