Staging the TV debates
New York — The "hidden agenda" of the presidential debate in Cleveland on Tuesday (ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, Tuesday, 9:30-11 p.m., check local listings) is that it will establish the presidential debate as an integral part of the American political process -- according to Lee Hanna, the veteran TV newsman whose official title is "Director, 1980 Presidential Debates, League of Women Voters Educational Fund.
In New York for overnight consultations before flying back to Cleveland, Mr. Hanna told me in a midnight phone interview: "I believe it will be awfully tough forany future candidate to turn down debates. This will be the second successive presidential election year in which the incumbent has agreed to debate. That helps to permanently seat the debate process."
Mr. Hanna, who has served as a CBS news director and as NBC director of TV news, was also in charge of the Republican primary forums in Chicago and Houston as well as the Reagan-Anderson debate in Baltimore. His brother Ed Hanna, also a news producer, serves as his deputy director in this and several other television projects. Now TV consultants, the Hannas plan to acquire several TV stations themselves soon and build their own little network.
Lee Hanna states very clearly that he would have preferred to use an open debate format for the forthcoming Cleveland debate. "We used it very successfully in two ofthe three Republican forums, but although Carter's man, Bob Strauss, went for it, the Reagan people wouldn't accept it. Traditionally, the challenger does not want to put himself in the position of showing a lack of respect for the President. The tough questions he wants to come from the press rather than himself. So it's difficult to get a straight one-on-one, noholds-barred debate past the challenger."
According to Mr. Hanna, unlike the situation in the 1976 debates, neither candidate has been given any peremptory challenges as to the moderator or reporters taking part. Howard K. Smith was chosen as moderator by Mr. Hanna and the League of Women Voters. They chose their newsmen from a list of eligibles compiled after consultation with the Nieman Foundation, Pulitzer Prize authorities, the producers of "Face The Nation," "Meet The Press," "Issues and Answers" and "Washington Week In Review," the Radio and TV News Directors Association, Newspaper Publishers' Association, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Signma Delta Chi, and personal sources.
Mr. Hanna indicated that one of the major pluses for Howard K. Smith was the fact that he is not now affiliated with any one network. Eric Sevareid was considered -- and might have been asked if the format had been a roundtable discussion -- but when thecomplicated debate format was selected, it was decided to go with an experienced anchor-man type "who is used to the mechanics of getting his show on and off the air."
What provision has been made in case there is some mechanical failure as in the 1976 Ford-Carter debate in Philadelphia?
"I still can't believe that there was no provision for that happening," says Mr. Hanna. "We are taking considerable precautions so there will be no dead space like that. Each candidate will wear two microphones -- a redundant system -- so if one mike goes out, the other goes in."
Mr. Hanna explains that if there should be some electronic problem, the debate would continue for the live Cleveland audience. He takes seriously the " 315 Aspen" equal-time ruling which allows the networks to cover a debate sponsord by a private organizations as a bona fide news event, exempt from equal-time strictures. He therefore believes "it would be a sham" were the debate to stop merely because there were on-the-air problems.
Thus Mr. Hanna feels it is not for him to decide whether or not the networks will include audience-reaction shots in their coverage. "It is up to the individual networks to do as they wish," he explains. "In Baltimore we gave each candidate 150 seats and each removed 100 seats just to try to prevent reaction shots. But the networks did it anyway.
"All we do is impose certain rules of conduct in the hall so the cameras don't interfere with the audience. We don't want lights shining in their faces, we make no provision for network commercial breaks. We are running the debate basically for a live audience -- that's ourleal obligation."
Mr. Hanna looks with favor on various suggestions for making TV debates an official part of the election procedure. "I've heard of proposals that the debates might even be keyed to federal funding in the future. I've also seen proposals to set up a permenent Debate Commission. These things are worth considering to make certain that debates become a regular part of the political process.
"Most important is to prevent the candidates in advance from being allowed to make decisions about the agenda of the debates -- how many there are to be, under what circunstances, what the subject matter should be, what the format is. Once they are involved, what we end up withis something that evolves out of compromise.It is certainly not ideal."
Mr. Hanna is convinced of the value of the presidential debate. "Certainly it has to be remembered thatit is another TV show. But you have to believe that people will vote more than their superficial impressions of the candidates.
"It would be nice if people paid enraptured, meticulous attention to every word that is spoken -- but even if they don't, the important point is that this debate will supplement, perhaps even counteract, the quick impressisons which they may be getting from 30-second commercial spots, from paid political announcements, from news filtered through television headline news programs, from wire-service reports upon which most people make their decision. This isthe only opportunity people willhave to see Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan stand up and face each other."
Mr. Hanna believes that the Cleveland debate on Tuesday will be the decisive factor in the 1980 election. "I think we have an electorate which is really turned off . . . undecided whether or not to vote at all. There has been a very real possibility that we would have a record low voter turnout. An event likethis, which allows people to see both candidates side by side with their basic philophiesand specific opinions on view, can really change a great deal of that and help potential voters make up their minds.
"One hopesit will dawn on millions of people that what you see is what you get!"