Newton Minow, the FCC chairman under President John F. Kennedy who helped start the tradition of general election presidential debates, says that it should be up to the candidates, and not necessarily the moderator, to correct each other if something is said that is not factual.
Minow, who is a member of the Commission on Presidential Debates, tells Variety‘s “PopPolitics” on SiriusXM that he agrees with what Jim Lehrer, who has moderated numerous debates, said. “If a candidate says something that is wrong or is not factual, it is the candidate’s job to make the correction,” Minow says.
He says that “more people than ever” want to see Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump meet for their first debate on Monday — but there’s a big difference between the general election match-ups of the candidates and those held during the primary season.
“I thought they were ghastly,” Minow says. “I thought they were chaotic. I thought that many of the media sponsors were trying to show off or make money with commercials. We have no commercials in the debates. They are a public service provided by the broadcasters and cable operators.” He adds that some of the networks were “shameful in exploiting controversy rather than providing information or differences” between the candidates.
Minow’s 1961 speech to the National Association of Broadcasters was called “Television and the Public Interest,” but it is part of industry history for a phrase he used to describe the landscape of escapist entertainment on the small screen: “a vast wasteland.”
But he played a role in the formation of the traditional televised presidential debates. As an aide to Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson, running for president in 1956, Minow proposed a “nationwide joint discussion” between the candidates. Although the idea didn’t go anywhere that year, it helped generate a push for some kind of televised forum with the candidates. In 1960, the equal time law was suspended for presidential candidates for one cycle only, which helped pave the way for the first televised debates between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy that year.
A key FCC ruling led to the return of the debates in 1976, this time sponsored by the League of Women Voters. Minow served as co-chair that year and in the next cycle in 1980.
While the coverage of the debates tends to focus so much on the personality of the candidates as opposed to their policies, Minow says that it is “certainly better than the canned commercials that are dominating television. You don’t even know who is paying for them most of the time.
“This is live, it is unedited, it is an opportunity to see how the candidates think on their feet,” he says. “It is an opportunity to get a glimpse of their personality, their character. So I think it’s very important. I don’t think the debates decide the election…but it does give the voters an education about who the candidates really are.”
One thing Minow would like to see are candidates question each other — rather than the moderator. “We have tried to encourage that but the candidates are reluctant to do that,” he says.
The 1960 debate was a turning point in the power of television to have an impact on the political process. Kennedy was regarded as the winner of the debate that year for those who were watching it on TV, but Nixon was thought to have won for those who listened on radio. Nixon had refused makeup, and looked unshaven compared to the tan Kennedy.
Minow says that Kennedy later told him that he felt he wouldn’t have been elected were it not for the 1960 debates. It helped introduce him to voters. Minow says that he was with Nixon in the same Chicago studio where the first 196o debate was held. He asked Nixon whether he remembered being in that spot. “How could I ever forget?” Nixon said.
Minow for years was a partner at the Chicago law firm of Sidley & Austin, and now serves as senior counsel. In 1989, he and his wife went to go see the movie “Do the Right Thing” at Water Tower Place, and ran into one of the firm’s attorneys, Michelle Robinson, who was with Barack Obama, a summer associate. They future first couple were on their first date.
Minow was profiled in the recent documentary, “Newton Minow: An American Story,” airing on PBS stations.
‘The Choice: 2016’
Michael Kirk talks about directing the latest Frontline edition of “The Choice,” a profile of the two major party presidential contenders. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have been in the public eye for decades, but this cycle’s edition may surprise viewers for the insights into both candidates’ backgrounds. Their fathers influences had an impact on each candidate’s ambition and drive, but also may have contributed to their flaws, like Trump’s grandiosity and Clinton’s secrecy.
Another ‘Between Two Ferns’ Blockbuster
Funny or Die’s “Between Two Ferns” with Hillary Clinton shattered one-day viewership records, and as of Sunday had 45 million views. That is more than the 37 million views of Zach Galifianakis’ 2014 interview with President Obama, a video that was credited with helping to boost enrollment in the Affordable Care Act.
What impact will the Hillary video have? The Daily Mail’s Nikki Schwab and Variety‘s David Cohen chat about the influence of comedy this cycle.
Tecate’s Trump Spoof
Tecate beer is debuting an ad during Fox News, Univision and Telemundo coverage of the debate on Monday with a new spot called “The Wall,” a satire on Donald Trump’s rhetoric in which the border wall is used to unify, not divide. The spot, below, comes from Saatchi & Saatchi NY.
And a Special Note:
This week marked episode #100 of “PopPolitics.” A special thanks to my producer Charla Freeland, the staff of SiriusXM POTUS and Variety, and all of the guests (more than 400 by my count) who’ve made this a great experience. On to the next 100.
“PopPolitics,” hosted by Ted Johnson, airs Thursdays from 2-3 p.m. ET/11 a.m.-Noon PT on SiriusXM’s political channel POTUS. It also is available on demand.