Get Rid Of Televised Debates?

Should we stop televising political debates?

Conor Friedersdorf suggests that televised debates are a bad idea:

Why do we assume that presidential debates should be broadcast on and organized around television, the most vacuous medium in American life? In informal experiments, TV has been shown to decrease brain function so drastically that viewers routinely sit through Real Housewives marathons. TV increases suggestibility so much that Axe Body Spray ad campaigns are cost effective. TV is the place where physical attractiveness, affected theatrics, and body language matter, and where journalists are successful partly based on their ability to have good hair.

Yet it isn’t just where we decide to hold our presidential debates. It is the only medium that is considered! It’s no wonder that everything we remember about past debates is embarrassingly superficial. Ronald Reagan got angry and insisted he paid for a microphone. Another time he had a clever one-liner, deflecting concerns about his age by joking about “the youth and inexperience” of his opponent. Dan Quayle got told he was no Jack Kennedy. Michael Dukakis seemed unperturbedwhen asked a hypothetical about his wife being raped and killed. Al Gore sighed and physically approached George W. Bush. These are among the most memorable debate exchanges in recent history, and every last one ought to have been totally irrelevant to assessing the given candidates.

On Twitter last night, Julian Sanchez wrote, “I basically feel about the debates the way Clarence Thomas feels about oral argument. Everything substantive is in the briefs; I don’t care who’s quicker on their feet in a verbal sparring match.” In the GOP primary this year, the televised debates permitted Americans to get to know a bunch of candidates in a relatively efficient manner, and helped eliminate several who couldn’t think on their feet well enough to be president.

Conor raises some good points here, of course. Ever since the advent of televised debates in 1960, the emphasis during political debates of all kinds has been as much on the way someone said something, or how they reacted to a question, or whether they got off a number of good “zingers” as on the substance of what they actually said, if not more so. This is especially true in the multi-candidate primary debates that we see every four years from at least one of the two major political parties. Those contests allow so little time for actual substantive answers to questions that they are of very little value to voters, and it doesn’t help when the debate moderators lower themselves to asking stupid questions like what kind of toppings they like on their pizza.

At the same time, though, the fact of the matter is that television is the most far reaching medium we have, and if you want to hold an event like a Presidential debate and have it reach large numbers of Americans, there really isn’t anything better. Conor suggests something along the lines of a text-based Internet debate, but I simply don’t see that working at all. For one thing, such an event is unlikely to draw the type of audience that a Presidential Debate broadcast on all the major networks and cable news networks would. For another, it would be very easy to see how candidate responses could end up being even more canned than the stuff we get from debates now. What kind of value is there in a “debate” where all you’re doing is reading typed, pre-written responses that have been through the hands of all the candidates handlers? I simply don’t see it.

Television isn’t a perfect medium for something like a Presidential debate, and there are certainly things we could do to change the format of these things so that they force the candidates to engage each other directly rather than providing rehearsed responses to questions from moderators and reporters. Last week’s first Romney-Ryan debate was a good effort by Jim Lehrer and the Commission on Presidential Debates to try to accomplish that. It was good to see more interchange between the candidates and less questions, it’s just too bad that only one of the candidates decided to show up that day. Future debates along the lines of what we saw last week, with some improvements no doubt, would be a good thing. But televised debates are here to stay, at least as long as television, in whatever form, is still a thing.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Ron Beasley says:

    In a word -YES!

  2. Tillman says:

    TV is the place where physical attractiveness, affected theatrics, and body language matter, and where journalists are successful partly based on their ability to have good hair.

    And this differs from real life…how, exactly?

    That’s basic signaling, Conor. That’s been around forever. TV just spreads it wider than an auditorium.

    Sometimes I wonder if people recall they are human, and subject to human instincts which are far older than civilization.

  3. sam says:

    As I said in another comment thread, it all comes down to whose shadow looks better on the wall of Plato’s Cave.

  4. ernieyeball says:

    You’ll have an easy time registering your counterarguments in comments below, which wouldn’t be true if I’d said this on TV.

    Apparently Citizen Friedersdorf has not heard of Twitter…

  5. LCaution says:

    Generally speaking, I think both the questions and the moderators are awful. It’s not TV so much, as something about the formats. Maybe we need to take them out of the hands of journalists and put them into the hands of people who are “professional” debate moderators.

    And, with current technology, it should be possible to post (split screen?) previous answers/votes by candidates in near -real time.

  6. stonetools says:

    Televised debates are not great, but they can be improved. I would like to see the ability for candidates may be to bring in aids and link to the Internet. Looking at the debates, its like the last 50 years of technology didn’t happen.

  7. ernieyeball says:

    While the author has proposed an alternative to televised debates, he does not tell us how to stop them.
    How about “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech,..except no Presidential candidates shall debate on television.”
    That ought to do it.

  8. wr says:

    Ah, finally we have the capper on Doug’s philosophy of elections. First, the only speech that matters is money; billionaires must be allowed to shovel as much money into any race as they choose with no limits or disclosures. Second, the Republican party, on winning an election, must be allowed to disenfranchise as many Democratic-leaning voters possible, as long as they cloak their efforts as the solution to a problem that everyone agrees does not exist. Third, we should do away with televised debates so the only information that comes to those few voters who are left is that which is paid for by the billionaires.

    The great thing is that once we have the perfect Doug elections going, we can then save a lot money by elminating the whole voting thing. Instead, the billionaires can simply bid directly for which politicians they want to run the country.

    And this will, apparently, bring about Doug’s constitutional libertarian paradise.

  9. bk says:

    “I totally agree!” – Richard M. Nixon

  10. bill says:

    double edged sword, not many people get to see the candidates if they don’t live in a swing state.
    plus, there’s a lot of “uninformed” voters who need to feel connected to whoever they vote for, i won’t call them “dumb” as it’s not nice. but really, it’s turned into a popularity contest and that’s not good regardless of which party platform you like.

  11. Rafer Janders says:

    The debates could be greatly improved if the candidates were able to bring an iPad with them, and when one of them lied, the other could just pull up the facts and have the camera zoom in….

  12. Just Me says:

    I would rather watch debates than conventions or pretty much any political speech.

    Generally speaking, I think both the questions and the moderators are awful. It’s not TV so much, as something about the formats. Maybe we need to take them out of the hands of journalists and put them into the hands of people who are “professional” debate moderators.

    I do think candidates work to micromanage debates to their advantage and the media moderators often just fall short.

    I would love to see presidential debates less stage craft and more debate. I do think there is something to be learned from candidates and how they answer questions the prod and poke to move them away from talking points. Problem is the current debate format mostly leads to candidates just needing to deliver talking points.

  13. Console says:

    The most fascinating debate I ever saw was one hosted by PBS for the Republican 2008 primary. The panel was mostly journalists of color and most of the questions related to race issues.

    A) you got to hear questions that would never get asked at a republican or general election primary
    B) you got to hear candidates answer questions about problems that they may or may not have even considered.

    The guys that stuck to talking points looked lost, and a lot of them did because it’s hard for the GOP to talk about racial issues if they aren’t channeling white resentment. The guys able to take their ideology and connect it to the issues presented looked the best (like Huckabee, who was the only front runner to show up).

    I liked that a lot. But it generally isn’t the point of debates to put politicians outside of their comfort zones so this debate was definitely the exception.

  14. Andre Kenji says:

    1-) There is a wide difference between watching a marathon of Real Housewives and watching political programming. Things like CNN International and BBC World News are golden if you are trying to learn English as a foreign language. The idea that all television is the same is stupid.

    2-) Maybe it´s because I come from a country where fewer people care about politics, but just the fact that there is a discussion about policy during Primetime TV is a good reason to keep the debates.

  15. KariQ says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    I think we need something more drastic. Remember the first season of the Simpsons, when Doctor Marvin Monroe strapped the whole family into chairs which would allow them to give one another an electric shock? The candidates should be strapped into those chairs, and the moderator has the buttons. Each time a candidate lies, the moderator gives them a shock.

    It’d at least be a ratings winner.

  16. Dazedandconfused says:

    Romney sure can talk fast.