Grading the Fox News-Facebook GOP Presidential Debate Spectacle by Bill Dutton and Tracy Westen

The televised and Facebooked GOP debate was a disaster. The clear loser of the debates was the media, particularly Fox News and Facebook, for putting together a media event that made a mockery of televised debates. It clearly drew a large audience (over 23 million viewers), and gave some greater national visibility to some of the lesser-known candidates in the race. But these virtues are not enough to compensate for the problems showcased by this spectacle. Commentators have said they thought they were watching a Saturday Night Live spoof of the debates. But these were the real thing and closer to Hunger Games or X Factor than SNL. They include:

Producing a Horse Race

The media like to make elections into a horse race as a means to generate an audience. Nevertheless, this took the metaphor to an entirely higher level. The announcers, the staging, lighting, and build up were all about who will win and lose the race and much less to do with the issues.

The Absence of any Meaningful Debate

It was not a debate. The candidates did not have opportunities to debate issues with one another. This was an obvious challenge from the moment the debates were proposed: How can a debate deal with 17 candidates. Breaking it up into two groups, each too large did not help. More importantly, there was no debate. It was a series of long-winded gotcha questions to make the moderates look clever and tuff and the candidates squirm, and not have sufficient time to adequately respond. It was as if the moderators sought to conduct a series of one-minute David Frost Nixon interviews, but could not and did not succeed.

Childish Antics

Much was made of the child’s table for the 7 excluded from the adult table, but the entire debate was childish. The very idea of asking the candidates to raise their hand in response to the moderator’s question was ridiculously childish. Every candidate should have raised their hand, or left the stage. How patronizing and silly, and this was the beginning of the show.

Moderator-Pundit Centric

The stars of this program were the moderators and the pundits they asked to praise their work at the end of the debate, and pronounce the winners and losers. The candidates should have been at the center, not the moderators. All the ‘experts’ questioned by the moderators were falling over themselves to praise the moderators’ questions, and play along with the seriousness of this fiasco.

Advertising and Sponsor Bias

The ‘debates’ also showcased Fox News and Facebook. This was all about advertising. Fox News has a reputation for biased news coverage. Facebook has no reputation at all for staging a political debate. The combination was a disaster. Did you notice how a critical question about ‘Google’ and ‘Yahoo!’ did not mention Facebook?

Three Standards for Grading the Televised Debates

On what criteria can we grade the Fox News-Facebook show? To address that, it is worth asking: Why do we want debates, what value do they offer, and why the Fox debates failed to satisfy those needs.

Voters want at least three things out of a debate. They want to know: Where do candidates stand on the issues? Do they have presidential personalities (smart, trustworthy, competent leadership, compassion, integrity, etc.)? And what do other respected individuals and organizations think of them (endorsements, party affiliations, etc.)?

Issues

The Fox format certainly didn’t allow the viewers an opportunity to understand and compare the candidates on key issues. Climate change, for example, was never mentioned. Foreign policy was virtually ignored (except immigration). Domestic economic policy was not significantly explored, although it was mentioned by a few. Educational policy was briefly referenced (“Common Core,” states’ rights), but nothing significant emerged. In short, it is doubtful that viewers, after more than two hours of back and forth, came away with any clear sense of where their candidates stood on many of the most important issues facing the nation. Actually, there may be better methods of exploring candidates’ positions on issues — such as text and analysis. But a debate should allow a moderator, or opposing candidates, to challenge a candidate’s position on specific issues, dig into them, and ultimately explain them more clearly to the audience. During the Fox debate, for example, Scott Walker was asked why he would rather let a mother die than sacrifice a fetus to an abortion. That was a powerful question. Not surprisingly, Walker didn’t answer it, and the questioner didn’t follow up or point out that Walker didn’t answer. So the debate failed to raise many significant issues, and it failed to create an opportunity for the viewer to learn candidates’ positions.

Personalities

Debates may excel at revealing candidates’ personalities: Are they are good speakers? Can they think on their feet? Do they have persuasive answers to difficult questions? Have they thought through their answers intelligently so they are coherent and persuasive? Do they speak with energy and are they persuasive? Do they exhibit leadership qualities, and more? The Fox debate was minimally successful at that for some candidates: It allowed viewers to get a better sense of Trump, for better or worse. It showed the speaking style of many of the candidates. But it was so fragmentary, jumped around so much, and asked two candidates the same question, but then turned to other questions, that it failed almost entirely to give the candidates a chance to show the viewers “who they were.”

Endorsements

Apart from revealing that all the candidates were Republicans, except possibly Trump, it’s not clear that viewers learned anything of the candidates’ supporters.

The Grade

One might easily conclude, therefore, that this debate, according to the three criteria listed above, should probably receive a grade of D+. Although debates have the potential to enlighten voters, this one certainly failed significantly in that regard.

 What can be done?

The news media in one fell swoop seem to have lost the credibility to manage or produce a televised or social media debate. What could be done to salvage this election?

First, any future televised debate must have more involvement of the candidates in the design of the debate format and production. Candidates could not have been involved in staging this Fox News debate, as it is hard to imagine them agreeing to such a terrible arrangement.

Secondly, there is a need to shift debates away from commercial television and social media to avoid this dumbing down of debates into an X Factor spectacle. Some not for profit organizations have led in the development of Internet-based debate platforms in the past, such as the Center for Governmental Studies, with its work on The Democracy Network (DNet), but this would require major foundation funding that could only be assembled in the longer-term. A new debate platform for the Internet could be developed, but in addition to funding, it would require work, creativity, experimentation, a budget sizeable enough to try different ideas, and a willingness to stick it out until it worked, for it to be successful in an age of streaming video. In the meantime, Secretary of State voter information websites could be enlisted to use more up-to-date Internet techniques and applications that would allow candidates to post videos, endorsements, etc. (See “Voter Information in the Digital Age: Grading State Election Websites,” which Tracy Westen co-authored — http://cgs.policyarchive.org) might be a transition. Alternatively, PBS could pioneer some work in this area on its websites.

Thirdly, there might be a case to move away from an emphasis on debates to focus more attention on voters, and opinion leaders among the voters, to inform themselves. With today’s technology, voters can be urged to source their own material, and not look to televised debates to clarify the issues or understand the candidates. Any voter with access to the Internet, whether directly or through a family member or friend, can source their own information. What does candidate x think about issue y? A voter driven process, focused on voters that are motivated to seek information, could inform an electorate in ways far less driven by media entertainment values and formats.

Someone will have to figure out (i) how to cater to the various voter strategies and meet the desires of voters for information in various formats; (ii) figure out how to make money out of online presidential debates; and (iii) promote the new approach enough until it takes hold, without sinking to creating a media circus like that used by Fox News and Facebook for the GOP debates.

More Challenges to Informing Voters Online: Lessons Learned by Tracy Westen

[After posting our blog on ‘A Dirty Dozen Reasons ..’, Tracy Westen followed up with an email detailing additional challenges learned during the 1990s when he worked through the Center for Governmental Studies (CGS) in Los Angeles to improve voter information. His note was so informative, and useful, that I have posted it here with his permission.)

Tracy Westen:

“I’ve been thinking about other deterrents to Internet debates that we did not cover, partly because I didn’t think they applied to Presidential candidates, but upon reflection they might.

You’ll recall that I was involved in developing formats for cities that wanted to use video to present their local candidates. We were able to get LA to enact this approach into its ordinances, and every election, all candidates for city office get a chance to videotape a short presentation on why they should be elected. These are available on the City’s municipal access channel and website. It’s now been running for perhaps 8 years or so. We also worked with Santa Monica to do it, and they’ve experimented with a number of formats: videotaped presentations, short debates, rebuttals, Q&A videotaped from an audience, so the user could click a question and see any answer, etc. New York hired us as consultants for two election cycles and gave all their local candidates — close to 200 — a chance to come to a studio, with professional lighting, makeup and a teleprompter, and video two versions of a statement of up to two minutes, and then pick the one they wanted to be used. They were broadcast on the city’s TV channel and I believe, but am not sure, were available on the city’s website. We also persuaded Time Warner to do the same thing one year on its Channel One, a dedicated NY news channel for cable, and in 1996 we developed the nation’s first digital, interactive, on-demand presentation of Presidential candidates for cable TV on Time Warner’s Full Service Network in Orlando, Florida.

What did we learn? Several things:

Format

In these early trials, my first suggestion was to require candidates to video tape at least two minutes! My idea was that they would have to get substantive to fill the time, instead of just using platitudes. To my dismay, I discovered that many candidates couldn’t fill two minutes: they typically didn’t have enough to say and ran out of ideas. Depressing! In addition, I found that viewers didn’t want to sit through two minutes — it’s actually very long, when you look at current TV editing techniques. So we had to drop that requirement and say “up to 2 minutes.” Almost no one ever taped anything that long. Saddening!

Lack of Experience

Local candidates (for city council, etc.) usually had little or no experience with TV. Their videotaped statements were, often, not very good: they read mechanically, didn’t express much feeling, and droned on.

Lack of Familiarity with TV Production

Our first trials with the City of LA offered candidates a chance to videotape their own statements and bring them to the City for airing on the city’s cable TV channel. We thought they would jump at the chance. At first, nothing happened: no one participated. So I arranged to have Time Warner Cable in West LA offer them a fully staffed studio, with makeup and camera operators, and all they had to do was call up, book an appointment, show up, and have the statements prepared for them. Only about 50% of the candidates participated — still that showed us that you have to offer them full service production, because none of them knew how to get a short video produced. We also did the same thing with presidential candidates in 1996: we offered them the opportunity to send us short video statements on 5 issues, and said we’d put them on Time Warner’s Full Service Network (the first interactive digital system) in Orlando, Fla. We only got a few responses and then had to hire camera crews to go to the candidates and get them to prepare statements: only a few did that.

Our lesson: at least in the early days, when streaming wasn’t any good, when YouTube didn’t exist, and candidates, especially at the lower levels, weren’t used to TV, we had to do everything for them. That’s probably still the case with lower races — city candidates through many state legislative races. I suppose, also, candidates didn’t see the benefits, since Internet traffic was so limited at that time. At the Presidential level, however, my assumption has been that the candidates are comfortable with TV and know how to produce short spot announcements. Still, while they may be willing to produce TV commercials (typically, they don’t contain the candidates except for a voice over at the end to qualify for lowest unit rate), they may not spend much time actually taping appearances in those ads – often they’re narrated by a third person and either attack their opponents or tout their records, without much candidate video. So, in short: Many candidates may not be comfortable with TV, or with the short video statement, and may not have easy access to recording facilities — so we’ve found we have to make arrangements for them (actually, like a debate, where all the candidate has to do is show up).

Teleprompter

At first, we tried to get spontaneity. We asked them questions and taped their answers for their statements. But some fumbled around and didn’t have very clear answers. And were nervous. So we used a teleprompter, and that seemed to work much better — but many, most, had never used one, so they looked a bit awkward: their eyes moved around, etc. Still, that was better.

Comfort with a Debate Format

Presidential candidates are generally used to sound bites and TV interviews and have the know-how to handle themselves in that format. Yes, they have to “practice” and “train” before a debate, but that’s a back-and-forth discussion, with a camera, and experts coaching them. Then all they have to do is show up and “perform.” Telling them they have to prepare, say, 5 to 10 video statements, then rebuttal video statements, then answers to voter questions also on video, over a period of time, perhaps months — that may be logistically more difficult for them.

One of my early ideas was that candidates would just sit down in front of a computer with a camera in the monitor, read a few voter questions, videotape a few quick answers, and transmit them into a central website, where they would be inserted in the right place. Probably naive – many didn’t have that capability, at least in the 1990s, and their campaign managers might not want such off-the-cuff statements inserted into the video stream. So there are logistical problems that may deter candidates from participating, including lack of familiarity with the format, lack of experience in making the videos interesting, and probably resistance from campaign managers who want to control everything but don’t have the time to spend doing it and not seeing the payoff.

I once had a very experienced campaign manager say to me, about Project VoteSmart — which sends a questionnaire around to all federal candidates, asks them to answer the questions [developed by reporters and polling], and posts them on the web — that the first thing he tells his candidates when they get the VoteSmart questions is to “throw them away.” He said his candidates gain nothing from answering specific issue questions: they only risk losing voters. Rather, he wants to control the message on themes his polling shows work best for that candidate. Project Vote Smart periodically ran into trouble because only small percentages of candidates bothered to answer their questions and get the free postings on the website.

More Experience but Challenges Remain

There’s more — I helped write a book, “Video Voter,” on this subject*, with recommendations to cities and others wanting to build voter information websites — but it was pretty upbeat and didn’t go into all the negatives. We’d need to think this through, in light of todays’ candidates’ experience with and access to video, to design a contemporary format.

Finally, as I think you know, I concluded several years ago that, rather than try to persuade the networks to develop websites like the Democracy Network (DNet) for candidate debates, I’d try to persuade Secretary of State websites to do it. I co-authored a book for the Center for Governmental Studies (CGS), “Voter Info in Digital Age: Grading State Election Websites,” in which we started by grading all 51 state (and DC) election websites on their presentation of substantive voter information. We developed a list of about 30 criteria and examined every website. We also made suggestions for what Secretaries of State should do to improve their websites and adopt contemporary web techniques, with an emphasis on video. This is worth thinking about, since (a) the networks probably won’t see any profit in what we’re proposing, and (b) Secretaries of State already have websites they can adapt, and doing so wouldn’t be that expensive. I have encountered problems with this, however, and can go into them separately. (I also put together a funding proposal for a foundation to fund our working with 3 test states to get them to upgrade their voter information websites but the foundation didn’t accept the proposal.)

Conclusion

So, at least two options: Persuade the news media or other Internet sites (Facebook, Google, others?) to develop online candidate debates (I tried to persuade TiVo to do it, and suggested the name “TiVoter” for them, but they didn’t adopt it), or persuade Secretaries of State to modernize their sites and offer many of the features we’ve proposed. Perhaps there are more. Apple, with it’s new Apple TV coming out in the fall?”

Tracy Westen
Tracy Westen

Tracy Westen

Dallas, Texas

From email to Bill Dutton

Notes

Voter Info in Digital Age