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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Republican Presidential Debates

Tonight's Republican debates were interesting, in part, because of CNN's decision to use the You-Tube format.  This format has been highly criticized -- and rightfully so -- after CNN's Democratic version of the You-Tube format.  CNN seemed to recognize that it included too many silly questions in the last You-Tube debate.  Tonight's debates had some silly moments, such as an Uncle Sam cartoon, a Second Amendment question prefaced by target practicing, and a painful opening song but I was struck by the fact that many of the questions this time were far more insightful than questions asked by professional moderators.  Admittedly, the first five of the twenty or so questions were about immigration, but that was a selection problem by CNN.  But even these were good questions -- would you provide amnesty, what about the value of guest workers, etc.  The debate started off substantively and continued to include substantive questions, even if it devolved into snippy moments, and included a fair number of evasions.  Compare this, though, with the first questions from the last two professionally moderated Democratic debates.  Tim Russert began the debate in Philadelphia by questioning Barack Obama about his intent to attack Hillary Clinton.  Russert then moved on to asking whether the candidates would promise that Iran would not get a nuclear weapon during their respective presidencies.  (As one of my students noted, this was akin to asking if the candidates could assure us that a meteor would not strike the earth during his presidency.)   Wolf Blitzer began with a nearly identical set of opening questions at the Democratic debate in Las Vegas.   Certainly Tim Russert is sufficiently versed in politics to ask questions at least as good as those submitting You Tube questions.   Why, then, would questions from average citizens have more substance.  My best guess is that, unlike in ordinary markets, competition for news is making news coverage worse.  There are so many debates -- and so many media outlets -- that only the sound bytes are widely watched.  And it seems that the professional moderators are more interested in catching the candidates in a gaffe, or an insult, than they are in developing a thoughtful exchange too lengthy, or complicated, to make the highlights.  More debates (combined with more news outlets) may, paradoxically, be producing less information.  If I'm right, then the questions in the presidential debates will be much better because there will only be three of them and more people will watch them in their entirety.  And if I am right, then it is sad that journalists are only willing to flesh out real information when they're assured the audience will be large enough for their efforts to be worthwhile.   

Posted by Wes Oliver on November 29, 2007 at 12:20 AM in Law and Politics | Permalink


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The questions gained a lot of power from the identity of the questioner. Having a gay veteran ask about "don't ask don't tell" puts the point a lot more effectively than having Anderson Cooper ask about it. Romney's continual response that he would "defer to the military" was about all he could say in response.

Posted by: Tony | Nov 29, 2007 1:29:17 PM

"[I]t is sad that journalists are only willing to flesh out real information when they're assured the audience will be large enough for their efforts to be worthwhile."

It's not clear to me why journalists would be different from any other market actor.

Posted by: Jason | Nov 29, 2007 10:43:41 AM

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