Get out of my way

Douglas Davis

September 22, 1992|By Douglas Davis

IN A rousing political year, with voters raring to vote for a change, it makes no sense to return to the conventional presidential debate format.

The disastrous debates of 1988, featuring glib questions and equally glib answers, fueled the lowest voter turnout since 1924.

The latest reports from the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates indicate the two parties may well make the same mistake again.

The lesson of 1992 is triumphantly contrarian: TV-as-we-know-it can't elect a dogcatcher. Candidates who have defied the old-style media tricks in favor of detailed position papers and appearances on open-ended radio or TV talk shows have seen their numbers rise.

Clearly, we need radical change in our debates. Mild revisions -- a couple more dates, fewer anchors -- won't cut any ice. The reforms must take their cue from the voters.

Contrary to myth, Americans have rarely allowed prime-time network news or killer commercials to influence their decisions.

Since the mid-1970s, researchers such as Thomas Paterson, William McClure and others, in face-to-face questioning of real voters (and not people who answer overnight phone calls from the networks), have consistently found TV to be a minor factor in the voting booth.

A survey last year by pollsters Peter Hart, a Democrat, and Douglas Bailey, a Republican, found a majority of voters blaming network news for low turnouts.

No wonder we welcomed Ross Perot's two-way dialogues on satellite TV and Bill Clinton's decision in June to answer callers -- and faxers -- on CBS. (George Bush refused to do the same

thing.)

In the post-network TV era the success of these events -- measured not by Nielsen ratings but by the enthusiasm of those likely to vote -- defies the one-eyed global village monolith.

In the old days media experts told us that elections turned on network TV guile, on the mind of Roger Ailes and the clipped quips of Tom Brokaw. Now it's obvious that committed voters prefer the C-Span model -- nobody at all between them and the candidate. Conditioned by countless call-in shows, the public wants to ask its own questions.

It also prefers the long forms permitted by cable television: several discursive hours rather than compressed nightly news sessions clogged with commercials.

Thus, the post-network TV era dictates three rules for the 1992 debates:

Talk to me directly. Answer my questions on the subjects that concern me -- and permit me a follow-up.

No one who has watched any of the candidate call-ins can miss the fact that callers are determined to get "specific" answers. Indeed, the word "specific" has become as common on television as "bite," its antithesis.

Tell me everything. Load me up with detail, subjective as well as factual.

Has anyone noticed how many call-in questions are "cultural," in the broadest sense?

Voters don't just want to know about a candidate's favorite books or whether he committed adultery. They want to know what kind of lifestyle decisions he has made. They want to know how he feels about birth, death, family.

The first question to Clinton on MTV was: "Hi, Gov. Clinton, what did it feel like to grow up in an alcoholic family?"

Get the media out of the way. Voters are lost to the democratic process the moment celebrity moderators take over. The Bush-Clinton debates must feel open-ended in time and "real" in terms of combat.

Let them cross-examine each other, separated only by an anonymous C-Span-style moderator. And let viewers fax questions and statements, as well as call.

How long should the 1992 debates last? Here is where we need a truly radical break with the past.

Let us have three debates only, on domestic affairs, foreign policy and, yes, on personal and cultural values. But let each occupy an evening, 7 p.m. to midnight.

Let the opponents talk as long as you and I talk when we visit friends for dinner and discuss the economy, schools and crime.

Of course, this idea will shock the political and TV pros. They will tell us that "long form" time will turn off viewers.

But these are precisely the experts who have failed to engage the electorate. They are living in 1924 or, worse, in 1988.

In 1992 we are not, as a nation, trying to create prime-time television.

We are trying to save our lives, if not our souls.

Douglas Davis, a critic and artist, is author of the forthcoming "The Great God Unclothed (or, The Five Myths of TV Power)."

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