Why do media, candidates give us debates designed for fools and nitwits?

Oh, sure, I’ll watch the rest of the debates, but I can’t help but be insulted by how the politicians and media treat us as fools and idiots. Is it too much to expect that we have a halfway intelligent format for the presidential debates? Answer a complex question in two minutes?

Can you imagine Mitt and Barack standing up to the media moguls and telling them that their lust for zingers and simplistic answers demeans the Presidency, forces the candidates to spin like tops, and treats us like dizzy twits? Hard to imagine, isn’t it.

To hear the candidates talk you’d think this election will decide the eternal fate of the nation—heaven on earth or hell in a hand basket. Then come the debates and at some point you think you fell asleep midway and awoke during the Saturday Night Live version. Boy has that show ever deteriorated, you think.

My first complaint is that the two-minute answer to a complex issue like the economy is a nonsensical suggestion. Why would I vote for a dummy who presumes to sum up the budget, the deficit, globalization, outsourcing, big vs. small government and inflation (to name just a few components of the issue) in a few minutes?

And why should the moderator run the show? Even if you believe (as I do) that the press plays an indispensable role in a democracy, why should reporters and editors get to filter what we hear from the candidates? I would like to give the candidates time either to win me over or hang themselves. To be sure, allow a few questions by the moderator for purposes of clarification, but very few.

Yes, I do believe the media is biased. They supposedly are people of words, masters of the nuances and subtleties of language, but unfortunately you rarely see that sophistication in practice. News coverage has given way to entertainment. Perhaps ESPN should handle the debates.

Naïve I may be, but I believe that reporters can strive for and achieve a measure of objectivity.  Once upon a time, long ago, when I was in that business, there was a lot more objectivity than you see today.  Of course, that was a time when a reporter with a college education was considered one degree below a real newspaperman. Nowadays journalists are better educated, make more money, attend the same cocktail parties, and reinforce each other’s prejudices. I prefer the cynical wordsmiths of yesterday who were convinced all politicians were crooks. They spent too much time downstairs at the Anchor Bar, but at least they didn’t climb in bed with the pols.

My specifics on staging better debates? Give each candidate five or ten minutes to explain his or her take on a given topic. Ask a three-part question if necessary, but give the candidate time to explain a position is some detail (an hour would hardly be enough but there are practicalities to consider). Nobody gets to interrupt or talk over another candidate. I’ve heard one suggestion that the candidate’s mike be shut off if he attacks the other candidate. Considering the buffoonery I’ve seen and heard from the stage, it’s tempting, but we need to know how one candidate’s position differs from another’s, and why one is better than the other. A brief time to critique the other guy’s ideas is reasonable and necessary.

“Gotcha journalism” reigns supreme in the media, and we all suffer because of it. Misspeak once and you are a goner, unless you are Joe Biden, in which case you are just “Good Old Joe,” inarticulate, gaffe-cursed—but lovable above all.  Remember Obama and his comment that we Midwesterners turn to guns and faith in difficult times? Or Romney’s comments about the 47% who pay no taxes? Rarely do you get the full context of gotcha moments. You certainly do not get it from the politicians, and, sadly, neither do you get it from the media.

For my part, I’d rather listen to the candidates directly and at length, dull as some of their presentations may be. The truth is that the important issues do not lend themselves to fireworks. We need citizens who want to understand the issues, and we need politicians who are capable and desirous of explaining them to the voters.

Or is it too late? Are our attention spans so truncated these days that anything more than two minutes causes our eyes to glaze over? Does a candidate have to hit a homerun or toss a touchdown pass to “win” a debate?

Maybe it is time to call in ESPN. I hope not.

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