Because of their apparent pivotal role in this election cycle, the Republican presidential debates are getting intense scrutiny–including the role of the moderator and that of the audience. Here are some observations on the latter from one of the smartest people I know. (The column first appeared in Politico):
Lower the curtain on debate audience
By: Newton Minow
January 29, 2012 09:18 PM EST
Newt Gingrich is threatening to refuse to participate in future debates unless the audience is permitted to respond with applause or boos to the candidates’ statements.
The Republican primary debates overall have made a substantive contribution to the process of selecting a presidential candidate. But recent audience responses are turning the events into something between a game show and professional wrestling — and just as staged.
Before the debates begin, a network director “warms up” the audience, encouraging them to make a lot of noise. When the audience didn’t respond with sufficient enthusiasm at a recent debate, The New York Times reported that the CNN director yelled, “You can do better than that! Louder!”
So when Gingrich castigated the debate moderator for opening with a question about the former House speaker’s ex-wife, the crowd was primed to rise to its feet with a roar of support.
This is the opposite of the first televised debates. Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon had no studio audience when they faced off in a Chicago television studio on Sept. 26, 1960. More than 66 million radio listeners and TV viewers heard and saw the two candidates without distractions or interruptions. There were not even commercials.
The radio and television time was provided by the networks and stations as a public service. All of the remaining 1960 debates were in TV studios around the country — with no audience present.
There were no debates in 1964, 1968 or 1972 because the Federal Communications Commission ruled they violated its “equal time” regulations by excluding other candidates. But in 1976, the FCC reinterpreted its rules to permit debates as news events. So the League of Women Voters sponsored debates on radio and television.
At the League’s request, I served on the team that negotiated the debate format with President Gerald R. Ford and former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter and then with the broadcast networks.
When the question of audience participation came up, the representatives of both candidates emphatically requested that there be no applause or boos and no reaction shots of the audience during the debates. The League accepted this.
When we met with the networks, they objected loudly, threatening not to cover the events. I told the network representatives that unless they followed the League’s rules, they wouldn’t be welcome at the debates. They agreed, and instead, the debates had small invited audiences who remained quiet while the candidates were speaking.
The League followed the same policy in the 1980 and 1984 debates. In 1988, the Commission on Presidential Debates took over. (Full disclosure, I serve on the commission.) We continued this policy of not allowing the audience to react to individual comments made by the candidates. All general election presidential debates have prohibited audience applause, boos or reaction shots.
The primary debates, however, have other sponsors, including media organizations or political organizations — who set their own rules and policies. Commercials run during the Republican primary debates. Sometimes, if a media organization is the sponsor, promotions appear behind the candidates. And audience reaction has become a part of the story.
There were headlines when the crowd cheered Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s record of executing convicted felons and when they shouted out “yes” even before Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) could answer a question about whether the government should refuse to pay for the health care of an uninsured man in a coma.
All these debates do advance the public interest. Voters have the chance to size up candidates, compare them and evaluate their views, personalities, characters and abilities. Especially in an era of misleading political commercials on TV and radio, the debates give voters the opportunity to learn more directly about the men and women who run for office. Particularly in a large state like Florida, where retail politics can be a small part of the campaign.
But audiences at debates should remain silent while the event is broadcast — so the audience at home can benefit from the undiluted opportunity to see the candidates head on.
After all, the audience already has the right to respond — in the voting booth.
Newton Minow was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
© 2012 POLITICO LLC