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Who Benefits From Debate Mania?

With debate mania set to kick off next week, now is a good time for another look at Stuart Stevens' piece on the RNC's post-2012 analysis (aka autopsy)
Published:August 15, 2023

By Stuart Stevens

The Republican National Committee’s post-2012 election analysis (which the RNC wisely elected not to call an autopsy) was an unusually honest and smart self-critique. One of the problems it addressed was the troubling explosion of primary debates. In 1988 there were seven Republican primary debates. In 2000, there were 13. In 2012, the number soared to 20.

This debate escalation is somewhere between silly and dumb and serves no public good. We pick a president with three general-election debates but it takes 20 debates to understand that maybe Ron Paul wants to blow up the Federal Reserve? Other important national questions are decided more expediently: it only takes 12 shows for The Bachelorette and The Bachelor to pick a mate.

The RNC report recommends cutting the number of debates in half and shortening the debating season. That’s a good start. But I think we should go further. To improve the quality of the debates and eradicate the commercial toxicity tainting the events, news organizations should get out of the business of sponsoring debates.

Let’s don’t kid ourselves. These “debates” have become phony entertainment spectacles not serious news events.

Here’s how Wolf Blitzer touted the Republican primary debate in September 2011, hosted by the Tea Party and CNN:

“Tonight, eight candidates, one stage, one chance to take part in a groundbreaking debate. The Tea Party support and the Republican nomination, on the line right now.”

This is how World Wide Wrestling is promoted. The only thing accurate about this breathless hype is that, yes, there was one stage. But there wasn’t “one chance” (for crying out loud, there were three debates in less than three weeks), it wasn’t remotely “groundbreaking” and every fifth grader watching knew that neither Tea Party support nor Republican nomination weren’t remotely on the line.

Don’t blame Wolf Blitzer, who is one of the more serious journalists on the air. Blame the system that forces Blitzer into this role. In a different era, it might not have mattered if CBS or NBC sponsored a debate. But in today’s hyper competitive economic environment, with every network and cable news channel fighting hand-to-hand for each eyeball, the pressure to tart and hype is irresistible.

There are many reasons to run for president. But being used to help generate profits and ratings for the news divisions of large multi-national corporations and to promote the careers of on air talent are pretty low on the list. At a certain point, this becomes terribly close to a news organization starting a fire to cover the fire.

How should it work? That’s easy. It should work like everything else in news and politics. The proper role of a news organization is to cover an event, not manufacture it and then cover it. We don’t have NBC-sponsored campaign rallies or CBS-sponsored bus tours, at least not yet. The current model for debates is not a news model, it’s a NASCAR model. Your corporate money buys the right to brand and promote a car and/or an event.

Serious organizations should host debates with smart, aggressive people asking questions. That could be a university, a think tank; some could be partnered with state Republican parties or any voter group, from student groups to the Tea Party. Print journalists and editorial writers should be involved.

These debates don’t need high production values. Put them in a studio without audiences. If that format is good enough for Meet the Press, it should be good enough for Republican debates. Probably the best of the Republican debates was a low-tech affair hosted at Dartmouth by Charlie Rose and carried on the Bloomberg cable channel, which is harder to find than Osama Bin Laden’s hideout. But surveys showed that half the voters in New Hampshire watched the debate on cable or the internet. Interested voters will find these debates.

In the 2016 cycle, with two open primaries, both political parties will be dealing with the same relentless pressure to serve up their candidates for some great, cheesy reality show we’ll pretend are debates. Maybe it’s time for Republicans and Democrats to come together again and form a debate commission for their respective primaries. The current Commission on Presidential Debates has provided a positive alternative to anarchy for the general election, though it’s clearly in need of some reforms. But if both parties formed commissions that sanctioned serious primary debates, it could help save news organizations from themselves.
We already have enough conflicts of interest built into our political system without news organizations being in the political events branding business. Because Barack Obama effectively killed the federal funding system for presidential races in 2008, candidates are raising staggering amounts of money. Where does much of that money go? A huge percentage goes for advertising to the parent organizations and affiliates of the news organizations covering the campaign.

It is something to witness a candidate getting off a plane day after day to raise millions of dollars then see much of that money go directly to the organizations in the back of the plane covering the candidate. Campaigns pump billions of dollars directly into the bottom line of the media. Candidates shouldn’t be expected to also answer casting calls on demand to fill programming slots in the next presidential cycle.

Leave that to the professionals. Like the Bachelor and Bachelorette.

This article was first published July 11, 2017 in The Daily Beast