A New Approach to Presidential Debates by Tracy Westen and Bill Dutton

Multimedia Convergence: A New Approach to Presidential Debates

     “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both.” 

     “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

— James Madison

What should be done to reform the currently abysmal televised presidential debates?

We have criticized recent media efforts to stage a meaningful debate among the presidential candidates. We have also enumerated a number of reasons why online debates have not achieved their potential. In this post, we suggest that the way forward might be a converged approach in which the mass media, Internet and social media are combined to provide multiple platforms for more equitable and informative treatments of all candidates, while also providing engaging and accessible means for voters to evaluate the candidates on all the factors they consider most important – positions on key issues; personalities, including strength of character, experience, judgment, intelligence and leadership skills; and endorsements by credible and respected individuals, organizations, media outlets and political parties.

Consider the following:

1) Reporters on a news channel (Fox, CNN, CBS, PBS) ask all the candidates questions by posting them on a moderated election website created by the channel (or collaboratively by multiple news channels). Reporters post the questions in a video format and ideally in audio and textual formats as well. The news channel moderates the website to ensure that multiple reporters do not ask the same question, and that the questions are judged to be important and pertinent to the election. The channel also invites viewers to submit candidate questions and can post them as well. The questions, for example, might ask: What’s your position on the Iran Deal? Improving the economy? Abortion? The growing divides between rich and poor?

2) The news channels give all candidates an opportunity to post the answers to the questions in short videos, and in audio and textual formats as well. The news channels offer candidates the use of their affiliates’ TV studios, teleprompters and makeup facilities in cities through the nation to videotape their statements. The video responses are limited to one minute (or even 30 seconds). The news channels post the answers on the website, so viewers can click the question, then click and watch the answers from the candidates they’re interested in. A clickable “map” on the site shows a flow-chart with the questions (“Iran”) and candidate answers (“Clinton”).

To be sure, this proposal might encounter resistance. News channels would need to incur logistic and financial expenses to create and administer the websites, and they would have to collaborate to create a single unified website. Candidates would need to acquire easy access to videotaping facilities in TV stations, network affiliates and news channel studios across the nation to allow them to create quick response videos. Campaign consultants would have to soften their resistance to allowing their candidates to take detailed positions on specific issues or make more spontaneous quick-response statements. But the proposal has the advantage of drawing on the strengths of all media – the mass audiences of TV, radio and print, and the user inter-activeness of the Internet – which offer more space for more candidates and more opportunities for voters to challenge and learn from candidates.

3) Reporters post follow-up questions for the responding candidates, and each candidate has a chance to videotape a response/answer to the reporters’ questions and/or any of the other candidates’ first position posts (in #2). The expanding visual map shows the chain of responses.

4) If necessary, reporters can post follow-up questions to dig into the issues, raise difficulties with various answers, ask two candidates to respond to each other, etc. Candidates may answer the reporter’s follow-up questions or rebut the last candidates’ statements. The visual map will expand so users can follow the chain of events and watch individual candidate conversations or match-ups.

Up to this point, voters visiting the website can structure their own debate: click one question, then click several candidate responses, then click various candidate rebuttals, etc. Each candidate has an incentive to respond to reporters’ questions or risk marginalization in the debate. Even leading candidates have an incentive to respond, since this medium offers them the likelihood of reaching a larger audience. As more candidates respond to more issues, the site becomes more valuable to more candidates and voters, creating incentives for both to participate.

But then:

5) The news channels transform the Internet debates into breaking TV news coverage. The host news channel (or news channel collaboration) prepares nightly or weekly news stories on the expanding debates, describing newly announced positions, highlighting candidate rebuttals to difficult questions, featuring voter inquiries, focusing on emerging disputes. News commentators provide their opinions on the evolving debates. And this TV news coverage is then posted back on the website and made available to Internet visitors.

6) Outside reporters or bloggers assemble their own news stories from the posted video questions and candidate statements — which are deemed to be “open source” materials and freely available to all. These stories summarize the positions of particular candidates on specific issues, point out how candidate positions differ, and use video clips and quotes as illustrations. News providers then blog, post or broadcast summaries, creating another layer of coverage.

7) Visitors to any of these news sites post comments or responses to the candidate positions, and they post comments on the TV news coverage and print editorials. Candidates respond directly, answering questions, critiquing summaries, clarifying positions and raising new issues.

8) News organizations provide links to more detailed background research on the substantive issues being discussed (e.g., statistics on abortions in the U.S., the negotiations leading up to the Iran Deal, etc.).

9) Candidates provide links to video, audio or textual endorsements by prominent individuals, organizations or media outlets. Political parties add their views. Voters could add their questions and assess the personalities and leadership qualities of candidates by watching their video answers.

10) The website site grows into an expanding “wiki” for presidential candidates and voter information. The website’s programming infrastructure is made available free to other users. State and local news organizations adapt it for local political races. The sites are archived for historical and research purposes.

Other Considerations:

Such a converged multimedia process might generate an expanding, more informative and in-depth discussion of important political and campaign issues. By integrating television, audio, print and the Internet, and by using each to generate programming for the others, reporters could edit candidate question and answers into an evolving multimedia debate, showing videos of candidates making statements, rebutting each other, and commenting on the rebuttals — similar to a news summary of an actual debate — without the web user having to click on each item. Site visitors can dig into the issues and compare candidates’ positions. Web visitors can structure their own debates, or choose to look at what particular candidates post about specific issues, or simply watch the video news summaries, or even read about it in a text format. It would also give the candidates the ability to express emotion, use rhetoric, and engage in a back-and-forth in a virtual format.

To be sure, this scheme might not work for various reasons. News channels would need to incur logistic and financial expenses to create and administer the websites. Candidates would need to obtain the technology platforms to create quick response videos. But the proposal has the advantage of drawing on the strengths of all media – the mass audiences of TV, radio and print, and the user interactivity of the Internet, which offers more space for more candidates and more opportunities for voters to challenge and learn from candidates.

A key issue revolves around what questions get asked, but there are a number of reasonable options: A moderating panel could choose, edit and post questions to avoid needless repetition and ensure a respectful and civil discussion.[1] National polls could be conducted to see what major questions concern the voters (as Fox did), and then use a selected number of those video questions to spark responses from the candidates. Or candidates could identify issues they wish to address and then post statements on those issues, thereby challenging other candidates to address those same issues.[2]

When the election process has narrowed the race down to two to three candidates competing for the Presidency, a live televised debate, complemented by the use of the Internet and social media, is viable and attractive. From the Kennedy-Nixon debates to today, voters have found proven value in seeing such a real-time debate among the top contenders for high office. This approach, however, cannot be scaled up to accommodate large numbers of candidates, such as the 17 in the 2016 GOP primaries, without adopting a dramatically different scheme. We hope our ideas will stimulate thinking about the advantages such a new approach would offer.

Tracy Westen and Bill Dutton

Notes 

[1] Project Vote Smart has used this approach.

[2] This was the successful approach of The Democracy Network.

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