Before watching tonight's presidential debate — and however much post-event analysis one can stomach — it's worth reading today's New York Times op-ed by Newton Minow.
Minow, a former Federal Communications Commission chairman, will forever be remembered for the speech in which he dubbed television a "vast wasteland" more than 50 years ago.
Yet the octogenarian offered an even more trenchant and important analysis by indicting the current political system's relationship with television, and how the need for astounding piles of cash to fund a tidal wave of nasty advertising twists and distorts the process.
Marty Kaplan, the director of USC’s Norman Lear Center, has spoken at length about the manner in which TV dumbs down politics, and conducted research demonstrating what short shrift incisive political coverage gets within the context (especially) of local news.
Nevertheless, it's worth quoting this passage from Minow's latest piece:
The debates are an institution now, and among the most watched
television events in America. They are one place in the modern campaign —
perhaps the only place — where the voter is treated with respect. They
are the one time when the major candidates appear together side by side
under conditions they do not control. They are a relief from the nasty
commercials that dominate the campaign, fed by donations that are
effectively unlimited and anonymous. Broadcasters provide the television
time for the debates, without commercials, as a rare public service.
Of course, it didn't have to be this way, but gvien the recent tide of events, nothing is apt to change that. Perhaps that's why there's a naivete in Minow's last bit of advice: "Let me suggest that after you watch the debate on Wednesday night, you
turn off your television set and do your best to avoid the spin that
will follow. Talk about what you saw and heard with your family, your
friends, your neighbors, your co-workers. You are smarter than the
spinners. It’s your decision that matters on Nov. 6, not theirs."
It's a nice idea. But given the current structure of these events — which CNN, apparently concerned "The Daily Show" doesn't have enough material with which to ridicule the channel, has given the idiotic title "Debate Night in America" — that would sort of be like leaving the football game at halftime.
Cue the analysts, and pass the popcorn.