Debating Presidential Substance in an Age of Television Style

WRONG CASTING. I do not dislike Rachael Maddow, but she (and her team of eggheads) is the last person you should to listen to for an accurate critique of the Presidential Debates. It’s like having a football coach critique a baseball game. Not wrong, just not the right person.



Why does this fundamental principle of television, over the ages, continue to baffle intelligent people? If you want the perfect, formative, highly readable “story” of how it all first came about, read David Halberstam’s brilliant 1979 foundational work, “The Powers That Be.” It’s a book that had a huge influence on me, long ago.

He tells the sad story of the World War II radio correspondents — of their brilliant and heroic work bringing the war to life over the Magnavox radios that inhabited living rooms across America in the early 1940’s. Eric Sevareid, William Shirer, Howard K. Smith and the greatest of them all who became the kingpin of the news media after the war, Edward R. Murrow.

In the late 1940’s television began to appear in the homes of America, and the CBS Television News founded by William S. Paley and staffed by “Murrow’s Boys,” sketched out a utopian vision of a nation where true democracy was fueled by this amazing instant delivery system of news and information. For a short while, they really did think it was possible to create an informed electorate powered by the leadership capability of television. They had a dream.

Then fast forward to Mike Judge’s 2006 cinematic masterpiece, “Idiocracy,” that paints the true picture of our society’s potential and you kinda have the alpha and omega of television. Basically it sucks. And is sort of doubly bad in that it continues to fool smart people into thinking, even 50 years after Murrow sadly, depressingly drank and smoked himself into his disillusioned grave, that television can uplift the masses. It can’t.

network style


So when it comes time for Presidential debates, the only thing worth thinking about is, “What are the memorable moments in the history of the debates?” Do any of those moments consist of one debater “out-debating” the other? Not really.

The number one moment in debate history is Richard Nixon pouring with sweat against Jack Kennedy in 1960. Halberstam tells the entire story in splendid detail. People listening to the debate on the radio thought Nixon won, but people watching television gave it solidly to Kennedy as everybody thought the sweaty Nixon looked like a nervous, insecure weasel. Kennedy won the election by only a slight margin. Most historians agree “how Nixon looked in the debate” played a pivotal role.

The second most memorable and widely agreed upon as an “important” moment was in 2000 when Al Gore irritated everyone with his repeated sighs in response to George W. Bush. It was the same thing. He just didn’t act presidential. And so he lost based on style, not substance.



The bottom line is that television is a superficial medium and this selects against heavily cerebral people. Which leaves me wondering why MSNBC assembles each time their panel of eggheads. Worst is Rachael Maddow, whom I don’t hate, I just think she’s largely clueless on this stuff. It’s like assembling a panel of football coaches to analyze the baseball World Series. They can do it, somewhat, but they’re not the right people.

Television is a superficial medium. Hollywood is overrun with superficial people. If I were running a TELEVISION debate analysis show, I’d have a panel of actors and directors. End of story.