By: Joe Strupp
The restrictive guidelines for the upcoming presidential debates — which include limits on follow-up questions, audience participation, and even camera shots — have drawn heavy criticism from some of the country’s leading veteran journalists, who claim the rules will diminish what voters can gain from the events.
“It is grotesquely wrong for a debate of this sort,” said Marvin Kalb, who was for 30 years a correspondent at NBC and CBS and was among the questioners in the second 1984 presidential debate between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. “The only people who will truly suffer are the American people.”
“Pretty soon, they’re going to tie them up in such knots, they will not be debates, just appearances,” said Kalb, currently a senior fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. “I find it shameful. Each [candidate] is perfectly capable of talking.”
Jack Germond, who covered politics for several decades at The Sun in Baltimore and authored various books on presidential campaigns, slammed the debates for being “too stylized…. You don’t learn much because the candidates get away with the stump speeches,” he said. “The real key is to have a free and full debate.”
Jimmy Breslin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at Newsday, called the entire setup a fraud. “Let them talk to each other,” Breslin demanded during a phone interview. “It’s like a huge fight, and you don’t let them hit each other.”
Specifically, critics slammed the 32-page “memorandum” worked out by the Bush and Kerry campaigns, which lays out the detailed rules. The Commission on Presidential Debates has said it will generally abide by this agreement.
Among other things, the memorandum bars candidates from questioning each other. During the lone “town hall” debate, which will include questions from the audience, all questions will have to be submitted beforehand and reviewed by the moderator of that debate, ABC’s Charles Gibson. An audience member who asks a question that has not been submitted will be cut off. No audience follow-up questions are permitted, either.
Bill Kovach, founder of the Committee of Concerned Journalists and a veteran of The New York Times and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, criticized those who would participate in the debate with such restrictive rules. “I’m disappointed that they are so anxious to be part of the process that they will allow themselves to be restricted by regulations that they are not even involved in creating,” he said. “The idea that you would allow others to set up rules is very disturbing to me.”
But Kalb defended the journalists who will moderate the debates: Gibson, PBS’ Jim Lehrer, and CBS’s Bob Scheiffer. “Everybody wants to do it,” he said. “I fully understand them.” When asked if he would moderate a debate under such limitations, Kalb said he would need to review all of the rules more closely. “If it was something I found I couldn’t live with, I wouldn’t do it,” he said.
“I think it’s a very bad rule that there are no follow-up questions,” said Ben Bagdikian, a respected former journalist, author, and teacher. “That means answers from either candidate cannot be queried. It encourages slogans rather than substance.” He added that voters in this election need even more explanation of issues because the race is so tight and so many more voters are expected to cast ballots.
Gene Roberts, who led The Philadelphia Inquirer to 12 Pulitzers in 18 years, kept his assessment brief. “I’m so delighted I don’t have to do it,” he said.
A presidential election has not turned on a debate moment since 1992, according to Germond, when George H.W. Bush was asked how the recession affected him and did not know how to respond. That allowed Bill Clinton to “take control” by using his poor childhood as a way of explaining how he understood.
“They can be useful by giving people a basic pitch of the candidates and their personalities,” Germond added. “But they are misleading. Too many people only see one aspect of things.”