BY ANDREW KALLOCH
Former Massachusetts governor and 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis ’60 and former FCC chairman Newton Minow headlined a panel of presidential debate experts in the Ropes-Gray Room on Monday, September 22. Dukakis and Minow, who is the father of HLS professor Martha Minow, were joined by Ellen Hume, research director of the Center of Future Civic Media at M.I.T. and founding director of the Center on Media and Society, and Craig LeMay, an associate professor at the Northwestern University School of Journalism, and the co-author with Minow of the new book Inside the Presidential Debates.
Minow, who quipped that he was actually best known as the namesake of the vessel SS Minnow on Gilligan’s Island, has been involved in every single Presidential debate beginning with the famed Kennedy-Nixon match of 1960. In 1986, he started the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has managed every debate since 1988.
When asked about why the Presidential debates emerged, Minow stated that the “cost of buying television time was driving candidates crazy,” and that equal time laws for airtime were problematic given the enormous number of people who run for President (260 registered candidates in 2008). Indeed, for many years a strict reading of Section 315 of the Communications Act severely restricted the number of broadcast debates. However, after the success of the Kennedy-Nixon debate, which was watched by over 66 million Americans, the FCC classified the debates as “on the spot coverage of news events,” which were exempt from equal time laws. These debates, said Minow, “Allow 300 million people to have a common experience of seeing candidates react to different issues.”
LeMay also lauded the American system of debates, stating that while he viewed the debates as “theatrical,” they are clearly seen as models for democratic elections worldwide. “They are now the most substantive part of the campaign…For all the shortcomings of the US presidential campaign, this is the one place where the rest of the world seeks to emulate us.” LeMay pointed out that as rough and tumble as the debates can get in America, debates in Europe are much less cordial. Indeed, in a debate in 2006, Silvio Burlusconi, Italy’s Prime Minister, stated that, “Any Italian that voted for his opponent was a ‘dickhead’.”
LeMay added that while the US debates-which reach nearly 180 million people worldwide-are a model for other nations, there are reasonable alternatives. For example, British prime ministers are subject to prime minister’s questions and the government provides free air-time for candidates, which in LeMay’s words, “means everyone must be a citizen.” Minow stated that this could be implemented by forcing broadcasters and cable companies to provide time as a condition of getting their license.
Dukakis lauded a program developed by the Kennedy School of Government as another possible alternative to the current debate structure (three presidential debates and one vice-presidential). The program, dubbed “Nine Sundays,” would air on each of the Sundays between Labor Day and Election Day from 7-9 PM. Six of the evenings would be produced pieces on substantive issues, with the remaining three saved for a more traditional debate format. Dukakis was critical of the networks’ refusal to cede precious primetime airtime for such a program, asking Minow sarcastically, “can’t we make these networks air these programs?”
The former governor was pessimistic about the current debate format, stating, “I’m quite concerned about what’s happening to the debates as an institution. I’m not sure that the qualities we are looking for in a President are reflected in debates.” Dukakis was particularly concerned that members of the press, even those who act as moderators, want to be stars and spend lots of time coming up with “gotcha” questions, such as Bernard Shaw’s infamous question of Dukakis in the 1988 debate: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis [his wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”
Hume was equally pessimistic about the current state of the debates. Longing for an age in which the debates brought forth unscripted moments that “cracked” candidates open, Hume stated, “It is all about theater now and that worries me deeply. I left journalism in 1988 because I couldn’t make the facts matter in politics.” Hume also disparaged the importance of a candidate’s “culture.” “People seem to be voting for a projection of themselves instead of the policy issues that you have spent your lifetime offering to the public…and I blame television for that.”
Hume believed that the YouTube debate earlier this year “felt closer to the lived experience of the voters,” quoting blogger Henry Jenkins. Indeed, technology such as Twitter (analogous to Facebook’s “status” messages), she said, can enable a closer connection between viewers and the issues. Moreover, fact checking websites, such as factcheck.org and politifacts.com enable viewers to get the truth about the candidates’ claims.
Others, however, were not convinced that social-networking and other technology was the panacea to what ails the debate process. Dukakis, meanwhile, thought the YouTube debate was “a little gimmicky.”
While the panelists disagreed about the form the debates should take, they agreed that turning off the television immediately following the debates. LeMay stated, “Turn your set off immediately afterward and discuss with students and colleagues, because the spin is dizzying…whatever substance was in the debate is almost instantly drained out from it.” Dukakis reminisced about being in the audience for the first debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000. “Those of us in the hall thought he [Bush] was absolutely getting pulverized…It was no contest in the hall, but the press had to develop a storyline.”
Lastly, the panel addressed a question from Professor Minow regarding the scope of views portrayed in debates and whether it was possible to break the two-party debate structure. Minow responded to his daughter’s question, stating, “We think that a third party will and probably should emerge in this country. The 15% rule [permitting candidates polling at 15% or more] allowed Ross Perot (1992) and John Anderson (1980) to participate. I do think it is very important that the country gets more than two perspectives in the debates.”
Whether one is in love with the current debate format or loathes it, Dukakis left the crowd with one strategic piece of advice: “If you decide to run for the Presidency, see me first.”