What the Debates Say About Us

by Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice 10/11/12

It’s got to have been a tough week, post-presidential debate, to be teaching public speaking or civics classes. I mean, how do you explain why the wedge-headed freak who went unhinged 12 minutes into his debate, started bopping around the stage, bullying the aged moderator, detaching his rhetoric from reality and lying faster and more furious than a busload of Pinocchios on crack, supposedly won the debate?

It’s not my intention here to revisit the debate. It is what it is.Three of the five candidates who are on the ballot nationally were locked out of this supposed debate. That’s no surprise. Presidential debates, like most major sporting events, are controlled by a sort of league called the Commission on Presidential Debates, whose function is to keep a cap on the debate, gaming the rules to maintain its own monopoly, or in this case, duopoly.

The Commission on Presidential Debates is a joint enterprise run by the Democratic and Republican parties and funded by corporations such as Anheuser-Busch and Philip Morris. The commission took over the debate racket in 1988 after the previous debate host, the fervently independent League of Women Voters, refused to give in to demands from the two parties to allow them to choreograph the debates by, among other things, selecting the questioners and the audience. According to a press release issued by the LWV at the time, the parties “aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions.” They added that they had “no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”

By all indications, their worst fears are now our political reality.

The debates are reliably devoid of questions addressing topics that both parties don’t want to talk about, such as the environment, Guantanamo Bay, military tribunals, indefinite detentions, the use of drones, assassination by presidential decree, and so on. The few topics the duopoly allow to be discussed are within the narrow band of what they want to talk about, and what we’ve already heard them talk about. With the certainty that we won’t learn anything new about the candidates, we’ve learned to settle for zingers and flubs. The “we” in this case is the national media, whose election coverage forgoes substance, looking instead for drama, ultimately covering the onstage competition between the candidates like a sporting event. They hope for a highpoint, like a NASCAR crash or a bloody hockey fight, around which they can wrap their little minds and about which they can pontificate ad nauseam.

In this substance-free political environment, debate coverage is limited to superficial examinations of the 90-minute onstage performance, devoid of context or reality. The intellectual depth of the analysis is limited to that spent on a professional wrestling match. In the first Romney-Obama matchup, Romney was the underdog, not worth a wager. Hence, anything short of him wetting himself onstage would be contextualized as a “come-back” or “surge.”

When Romney danced around his podium like Muhammad Ali—“float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”—the pundits swooned. The fact that many of his words bore no connection to any truth that he voiced before or after the debate was not important. The fact that he misled the audience or outright lied, according to a study authored by the Democratic-leaning Center for American Progress, about 27 issues, repeating his biggest fibs over and over, was not a major factor in the scoring of Romney’s performance.

While the candidates and their families were still onstage shaking hands, the talking heads started their chatter. Romney “went on the offensive” and “stayed on his message.” It was not important that this message contradicted all of his recent policy statements, or that the main source for exposing his lies was his own campaign website. They celebrated his performance because he was strong and forceful.

Actually Romney was a bully, speaking over the moderator, 78-year-old Jim Lehrer, and ignoring his pleas to behave. At one point Romney, sporting a maniacal smile, threatened the moderator that, if elected, he’d defund PBS despite his supposed appreciation for “you” and “Big Bird.” The comment was one of the only clear policy statements Romney made, promising to pay for his weighted-toward-the-wealthy tax cuts by eliminating the $1.35 per American per year that we spend on public broadcasting. It was rather miniscule as a policy revelation, given that Romney still hasn’t outlined where he’d cut the other $7 trillion or so, but it adequately stunned the moderator.

When you lie your way through a debate, that’s called cheating—not winning. The fact that a leading presidential candidate can go on a national debate stage, lie and bully his way through a debate, yet have his shameful performance celebrated by a plurality of pundits, doesn’t bode well for our democracy. That we celebrate bullying and see lying as legitimate political discourse undermines our very ability to debate issues and democratically chart a course forward for our nation. Thet fact that we so willingly allow lies to poison our political culture demonstrates how shallow our commitment to democracy has become.

The debate performance says a lot about the candidates. Our reaction to the debate says even more about us.

Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at S.U.N.Y. Buffalo State. His previous columns are at artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.

ęCopyright 2012

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