Newton Minow: In Defense of Tonight’s Debate Format

In the New York Times, former FCC chairman Newton Minow defends tonight’s debate format as a kind of haven for viewers who are inundated with campaign ads or have been weaned on the more raucous primary debates.

He writes, “This year, each of the 90-minute presidential debates will be moderated
by a single individual (on Wednesday night, Jim Lehrer), not a panel.
The first and third debates will be divided into six 15-minute segments.
Each segment will open with a question, followed by two minutes for
each candidate, with the balance of time for informal discussion. (The
second presidential debate will be a town-hall-style discussion.)

“We hope the new format will provide for focused, extended discussion and
be entirely different from the disappointing primary and caucus
debates, where we saw moderators preening for the camera, demanding
yes-or-no answers, asking candidates to raise their hands to respond to
questions, and forcing candidates to shout to be heard. We even observed
media handlers urging the audience to boo, applaud and jeer.”

There’s been some criticism that the debate format haven’t really changed all that much in the digital age — as the media outlets that cover them unleash all sorts of gizmos to monitor opinion. Minow, who sits on the Commission for Presidential Debates, sees it differently.

“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.”

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