As presidential races change, media coverage must adapt
Washington — A debate, as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is "a contention by words or arguments ... as a regulated discussion of a proposition between two matched sides."
If you have watched any of the "debates" among the 2008 Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls, you might be wondering if US news media read the dictionary much. The events featuring eight potential Democratic and 10 possible Republican nominees, each lined up on their respective stages, look and feel less like debates than talent shows. Each candidate wants to stand out and be noticed, without saying or doing something that might embarrass himself or herself.
As painful as they can be to watch, these early debates are nothing new. The Democrats' first primary debate for the 2004 presidential race was held on May 3, 2003 – there were nine candidates in that one. You probably don't remember it because it wasn't televised until hours after it ended and not televised at all in some parts of country.
And that's what's new for 2008. The media are treating these contests as something significant. CNN has gone so far as to run debate countdown clock on the days of its sponsored forums.
What has happened that the news media suddenly feel the need to pump up these contests? It's more than just hype gone wild. First, 2008 is going to be a big election year. With no clear nominee on either side, big issues looming, and a war on, the stakes are high.
Beyond that, these "I need a memorable sound bite" gatherings have additional weight because you might actually want to know who these people are if you choose to vote in primary season. With possibly 20 primaries moved up to take place on Feb. 5, 2008, it's likely you will go into the voting booth with a laundry list of options on your ballot.
In the past, by the time most voters actually got a say in the primary race, the field had been winnowed down by the early primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and other states. The race was so long, candidates decided that if they couldn't get a win – or a second- or third-place finish – fairly early, they would drop out.
But the schedule is so compressed now, it's hard to imagine that any candidate with a prayer and a few bucks will drop out before Feb. 5. So Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas or Democrat Mike Gravel, former senator for Alaska, might be options for you.
That's where the debates come in, and that is a problem. The broadcast and cable outlets like debates. It's what they are familiar with. And despite the events' many flaws, seeing two or three candidates on stage together answering questions about their positions gives viewers a longer and more in-depth look than they'll get in TV ads or most quick news appearances.
But when you multiply the number of candidates two or three times, the flaws of these debate formats become more pronounced.
Consider that if even every single minute of last week's two-hour Republican debate was devoted to candidates' responses, each candidate would get only about twelve minutes total to answer all the questions posed.
In last Tuesday's Repub-lican debate, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee didn't get his first question until 15 minutes in and didn't get his second until 21 minutes after that. After the Democrats' debate on June 3, presidential hopeful and Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd put up a debate "Talk Clock" on his website showing that the person on stage with the third longest speaking time was … CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer.
Poke fun at Wolf for being long-winded if you like, but when you have eight candidates and one person moderating, that host is going to get a large amount of air- time. It also may be, less defensibly, that the host network is also using these events to promote their people and network.
Regardless, an early problem for the media going into 2008 is that the game has changed, but the press has not. News organizations are trying to apply the same models that worked for them in the past to a new reality, and so far it looks clunky.
It may be time for mainstream media to think of new strategies for handling a changing world. For example, maybe instead of debates, broadcast outlets should consider airing a long interview with each contender. Maybe an evening of long profile pieces ticking through where each candidate stands and who he or she is would be in order. Or perhaps the networks could have different debates dig deeper into single issues. But that would require rival channels to coordinate.
As the race goes on, this need for a new approach is likely to come up again – and not just about debates.
Campaigns are changing fast. There is a whole world of issues the media didn't have to consider eight years ago. New media technologies have made blogs and social networking sites into tools and weapons, and campaigns have developed the ability to microtarget specific kinds of voters with specific messages.
At some point the press is going to have to change, too. Maybe 2008 will be the year, but so far it doesn't look like it.
• Dante Chinni, a senior associate at the Project for Excellence in Journalism, writes on media issues.