Indiana Debate Commission tweaks needed
Tuesday, December 18, 2012 7:03 AM
This article was originally published in the Dec. 13, 2012 edition of Howey Politics Indiana.
By BRIAN A. HOWEY
NASHVILLE, Ind. – After the Oct. 23 debate in New Albany that probably altered the outcome of the U.S. Senate race, you can make a case that the Indiana Debate Commission provided a proper forum for discussion in the gubernatorial and Senate races that had relevance and impact.
However, this being only the second election cycle for the commission, which was created in 2007, some tweaks are in order.
In the spirit of constructive feedback, here are some thoughts to ponder:
1. Provide different formats. The three gubernatorial debates and two in the U.S. Senate race used the identical format in all five events. This included two-minute opening statements, a series of one-minute responses to viewer questions, 30-second rebuttals, and a second response. The debates then went into a middle “Lincoln-Douglas” format where a candidate could raise an issue, a counter from the other candidates, and then end with a response. And then it was back to the one-minute responses to viewer questions and 30-second rebuttals. It ended with a brief closing statement from each candidate. This format is an invitation for sound bites – which already dominate the campaigns via their TV and radio ads – and became duplicative, particularly in the gubernatorial debate when the second event seemed to be a rerun of the first. The candidates drove home much from their stump speeches and promoted their websites.
What would have made the Lincoln/Douglass section much better is if the moderator was empowered to step in and insist that a candidate answer a question – or, perhaps, to reframe the question to hone in on key issues that both candidates had ignored or dodged.
In multiple debate series, a varied format should include one used by Rev. Rick Warren in 2008 when he conducted two extensive “conversations” with Barack Obama and John McCain. We saw former Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard use this type of format at an IU event in August. It prompted Mike Pence, John Gregg and Rupert Boneham into a conversation beyond the sound bite. The commission should consider a series of different formats, so that in each race there is variety that prompts the candidates into different types of responses and at varied lengths.
2. The use and treatment of journalists. The citizen questions are valuable and should be included in at least one debate in each contest. But journalists were minimalized during the entire process. The biggest beef here is that the press corps was confined to a “filing room” outside of the main venue. Essentially, we were kept from witnessing the entire event. We had no access to take into account reaction from the audience, which is a crucial part of any story involving a debate.
Journalists need to be accommodated in the main venue, far enough away from the candidates so that typing doesn’t become a distraction. Secondly, journalists cover the day-to-day campaign, know the issues, and should be allowed to pose questions to candidates during the debate sequence during at least one event. As it stands right now, journalists can only ask questions after the event. So the public doesn’t get to witness the journalists questioning the candidates, and the journalists don’t get to witness the public during the debate.
Thirdly, while the public asked many good questions, there was some duplication, and relevant issues, such as the outside financing of the $30 million Senate race, were never raised. Joe Donnelly and Richard Mourdock should have been placed in a position to take questions on all of the national money that spilled into their race. But with citizen questioners, it never came up.
3. The involvement of the Libertarians. Early last summer at an Associated Press Managing Editors event, the Libertarians pressed newspaper and radio executives for more extensive coverage of their candidates. And throughout the rest of the campaign, Andy Horning and Rupert Boneham were dutifully included in many stories. The problem is, they represent no real power. Neither of them had any chance of winning. Neither candidate had any power base in the Indiana General Assembly (which has never had a Libertarian elected into either chamber) or Congress, which has no Libertarians serving.
Libertarians are “playing politics.” They don’t raise money, build organizations that place their candidates in a position to win. Horning essentially admitted this during the press conference following the second Senate debate. Essentially, Libertarians are “fringe” candidates with the only impact on an election being whether they get their customary 3% or whether it balloons up to 5 or 6% as it did in the U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races. Too often, the Libertarian candidate becomes the jokester, injecting opinions into the format or repeat websites or ideology, though they have no realistic chance of ever governing. I challenge anyone to go back and listen to Boneham during the three gubernatorial debates and explain how anything he said had any realistic chance of becoming policy. I’m not saying bar the Libertarian candidate. They could be included in at least one event. But the debate commission could raise the bar. They could insist that a Libertarian get at least 10% in the previous election, or in a majority of public opinion polls prior to an invitation deadline date. That might incentivize the Libertarians to act like a real party. If they don’t, let the Republican and Democratic nominee have one or two events where they contrast the issues between themselves.
4. All debate images and should be available for fair use. When Republican Senate nominee Richard Mourdock uttered his now infamous “God intends” rape remark in New Albany on Oct. 23, it made national news. The weeping Mourdock provided the image of the cycle and it dominated news coverage and citizen social media. The natural progression is that the video and audio would make it into campaign advertising. When Democrat Super PACs and the Donnelly campaign used it, the Debate Commission cried foul, saying that use of the images and sound violated participation agreements. This violates “fair use” doctrine. Anything said or seen in an Indiana Debate Commission event should be fair game for use in any form or format going forward. To restrict its use is . . . unAmerican. It makes no sense. If a candidate participates in a debate, anything said or done should be fair game. It becomes part of the public domain.
5. Production values. Younger viewers who use nothing but high def told me the production values were a real turnoff. I suspect in the next four years there will be great strides made by public television on this front, but it’s worth noting that people – particularly younger people – noticed.