Experts: Format may have limited true discussion of policy issues

Analysts say rules allowed for more “canned answers.”
Friday, October 1, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:07 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 6, 2008

Webster’s dictionary defines “debate” as “discussion or consideration of opposing reasons.”

But limits placed on Thursday’s presidential debate have some debate and journalism experts concerned that millions of Americans did not receive the discussion they deserved.

Because of agreements made by the Kerry and Bush camps, the candidates were prohibited from asking each other questions or making references to audience members during their responses.

Debate officials also placed lights on the candidates’ lecterns to indicate when their responses became too long-winded. MU communications professor Mitchell McKinney said before the debate that the lights had the potential to distract home viewers, focusing their attention less on the issues and more on whether the candidates could answer questions in the time allotted.

“It would kind of be like a debate game show with bells and whistles,” McKinney said. “It would be like ‘Can you solve the pressing world issues in 90 seconds?’ ”

Esther Thorson, associate dean of graduate studies at the MU School of Journalism, said restrictions on the types of questions asked gave the candidates opportunities to recite canned answers. That sort of format gives the audience no opportunity to hear actual dialogue between candidates, she said.

Thorson said the new limits are “really disturbing” because the spontaneity of real debate is what is most beneficial to viewers.

MU associate journalism professor Steve Kopcha said the candidates’ efforts to control the environment of the event is just a continuation of an old strategy.

“They are not debates in the sense of the word,” Kopcha said. “They’ve been like dual press conferences. No one should tune in thinking there’ll be a real debate.”

But Kopcha said there are still reasons to watch the candidates say the same things they have for months on the campaign trail.

“I’d rather have them on the same stage in front of the same crowd than on different sides of the country,” he said.

Despite what he perceives as a flawed structure, McKinney said moderator Jim Lehrer asked good questions that allowed the candidates to explain their different plans for foreign policy and national security.

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