Inside the First Amendment
By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center senior vice president/executive director
Should journalists and news organizations participate in, even sponsor, political debates?
Let’s start with why we have such debates: They are an opportunity for us to hear directly from candidates, to see how they explain, attack and defend positions and proposals.
The value holds true whether it’s a local gymnasium chat-fest between city hall challengers or candidates with multimillion dollar White House campaigns on the line in front of a national TV audience.
Journalists who report on politics for news organizations large and small would seem a good fit as moderators or questioners if they are informed about issues, are up to speed on where each candidate stands, and — it should go without saying — are not aligned with any one candidate.
Such a role fits well in the First Amendment framework of a free press as a way to help us keep an eye on the government.
But then there are the complicating factors. Many voters see journalists as biased, supporting one candidate or another, or simply as attack dogs more interested in controversy than information — not as the watchdogs on government envisioned by the nation’s Founders.
And, as we’ve seen recently, candidates may work to position the press as, in effect, another election-year opponent, or as an on-stage foil to gain cheers or votes. Further, when debates also are sponsored by news operations, just the act of a journalist-moderator setting out the rules can set off repercussions and recriminations. Witness the booing and criticism aimed at NBC’s Brian Williams after he told audience members Jan. 30 in Florida to be quiet until certain program breaks.
This election year has brought an unprecedented number of primary-season televised debates — 19 thus far involving Republican candidates, with at least four more to come and news operations as sponsors that include CNN, NBC News, Politico, National Public Radio, PBS and The Washington Times.
Former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich first — and thus far, most successfully — played the “press” card to election advantage. In South Carolina he scolded CNN’s John King for beginning the program with a question to him about an “open-marriage” claim made by Gingrich’s second wife. Some experts say the audience cheers and resulting momentum helped propel Gingrich to a win in that state.
Just days later, in a Florida debate, Gingrich protested that it was unfair of NBC’s Williams to muzzle an audience’s “free-speech rights,” again to cheers. Gingrich may have “cried wolf” one too many times, though. In a second Florida debate, his attempt to chide CNN’s Wolf Blitzer seemed to backfire when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney used the exchange to zing Gingrich about critical comments made elsewhere.
Gingrich has now declared that if he’s the GOP nominee, he won’t participate in debates where journalists are part of the event.
Some say our debate tradition is rooted in the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates. The two Illinois Senate candidates met several times over four months, debating the issue of slavery. Crowds approaching 15,000 in some cities cheered and jeered.
No journalists were on stage or posed questions. But, as Lincoln historian Harold Holtzer wrote last month in The Washington Post, the overall debate quality was not all that high. Contrary to myth, he said, with the two opponents left to their own agendas, “the encounters were brutally sarcastic, featuring highly personal attacks rather than elevated discourse.
The debate formats we have now stem from the 1960 landmark Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates, the first to be televised. Moderator and CBS News anchor Howard K. Smith sat between the candidates; Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon faced four journalists who asked questions. There was no studio audience.
But there was impact aplenty. TV watchers thought the youthful Kennedy won, though polls showed many listening on radio gave Nixon the edge. There was a lull in the years immediately following, but the Commission on Presidential Debates was created in 1987 and since 1988 has organized the general election presidential debates.
The independent commission will conduct three debates beginning Oct. 3 in Denver, and one vice-presidential debate Oct. 11 in Kentucky. All will have moderators, likely TV network news anchors or correspondents. No rules have been announced on audience participation, other than that one debate will be in the “town hall meeting” style.
The commission’s sponsorship and oversight places journalists where they should be: As questioners on our behalf. They will have the job of focusing the discussion on issues of importance and areas of substance. The commission can take any flak of over rules about cheering, podium placement or any other details.
In that format, and with that approach, journalists, candidates and voters all will be winners from the start. No debate about that.