The un-debate: Plan to improve on '88 is undermined GOP objects to format

first debate is canceled

September 17, 1992|By Boston Globe

The cancellation of the first presidential debate undermines carefully scripted plan to redress in 1992 some of the shortcomings of the 1988 presidential campaign.

"The public lost," Paul Kirk, co-chairman of the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, said yesterday. "The public lost an opportunity to see an educational informative forum that is not from Madison Avenue."

Major television networks have changed the way they cover presidential campaigns this year to avoid the pitfalls inherent in 9-second sound bites and pretty pictures that seemed to dominate the 1988 campaign. To present more campaign substance, the Commission on Presidential Debates proposed three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate this fall. Under the plan, each debate would have a single moderator instead of a panel of journalists.

But the commission, which was established in 1986 by the chairmen of the major political parties to institutionalize the televised presidential debate, found that the Bush campaign would not agree with the format. The Bush campaign wants only two debates and opposes the single moderator format favored by the commission.

The Republican objections echo their complaints of 1988, when the commission proposed three presidential candidate debates, but Mr. Bush would go along with only two.

Democrats have described the Bush campaign's maneuvering as a delaying tactic to limit the Bush-Clinton meetings to a single debate. Campaign and television critics have called the Bush campaign's challenge to the single moderator at odds with this year's trend toward more spontaneous, unscripted and unfiltered candidate exposure on television. "What we have learned from all our studies is the American people are desperately thirsty for good, clean substance," said Marvin Kalb, director of the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

A single moderator format would give the candidates more time to discuss their views on complicated issues, Mr. Kalb said.

Mr. Kalb and other specialists said that a panel of journalists consumes valuable candidate time and that reporters tend to ask either predictable questions to which the candidates give scripted responses or "gotcha" questions designed to throw the candidate off balance. Therefore, the panel format does not necessarily enlighten the public on policy positions, the specialists said.

vTC "Whenever you have a panel of journalists, each journalist has his or her own agenda," said Mr. Kalb, a longtime television journalist who served on a panel at the foreign policy debate between President Ronald Reagan and Walter F. Mondale in 1984.

Richard Moe, a member of the commission and a Washington lawyer who held a top position in the Mondale campaign, said the single moderator format had strong bipartisan support.

"The standard press panel format is not very informative," he said. "It was our bipartisan view that it would be much more revealing for the candidates and their positions on issues to have a more free-flowing format."

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