How Live Audiences Kill Debates
The tone of Thursday night’s GOP séance was set in the first minute, not by the candidates or moderator, but whooping and applause of hand-picked partisans in the hall when Newt Gingrich attacked CNN’s John King and all the media as “despicable” for asking about his second wife’s character charges against him that had dominated the news cycle all day.
In contrast, for 1960’s first presidential debate ever between JFK and Nixon, the only people in the studio, besides a panel of four journalists asking questions, were television crewmen, two wire service reporters, three photographers and an aide to each candidate.
“For the most part,” the New York Times reported, “the exchanges were distinguished by a suavity, earnestness and courtesy that suggested that the two men were more concerned about ‘image projection’ to their huge television audience than about scoring debating points.”
How did we get from there to today’s atmosphere of bear-baiting, bull-fighting and Roman gladiators, and was it worth the trip?
The process has been transformed from a relatively civilized exchange of views on issues, with the usual political posturing of course, into an ugly spectacle of candidates under pressure to tear down one another (and the President of the United States) with unchecked (until the next day, when TV viewers are gone) exaggerations, distortions and lies—-anything to stir up the partisan blood.
Saturday night, South Carolina will provide a partial answer to how well this kind of demagoguery works, with the likelihood that Mitt Romney’s big lead in the polls will dwindle or perhaps disappear altogether.
Meanwhile, one of the nation’s leading social critics has already weighed in.