unPHILtered – Phil Ponce's Blog

Debate Insights From a Grown-Up

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.


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John King Did the Right Thing

As you probably know, CNN debate moderator John King got slammed by Newt Gingrich who said he was appalled by King’s first question in last week’s CNN debate.  The story had been breaking all day that Gingrich’s second wife was alleging that Gingrich had asked for an open marriage so he could continue to carry on with the woman who is now his third wife.  King asked him about it.  Here’s the exchange:


The topic was the elephant in the room (besides all those Republicans!) and I would have been appalled had King NOT asked that question at the beginning.  It would have seemed like he was completely out of touch had King asked about anything else — it would have almost been a dereliction of King’s duty to have done anything else.

But why not ask it later?  It was the question many, if not most, people were waiting for.  And how much attention would have been paid to anything that came beforehand?  Either way, Gingrich knew the question was going to be asked, knew it would probably be the first question and fashioned an answer that was very effective in front of that particular audience.

Having said that, I might have prefaced the question as follows:  “In the past, you have made it clear that a president’s conduct in private life is relevant to his fitness to serve.  As you know your ex-wife has alleged, etc.” I don’t know that it would have made any difference and Newt would have probably ripped into me in a different way because he — like all effective politicians — has mastered the art of answering the question he wants to answer!

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Test Your English Pronunciation! (Part 2)

Yesterday I posted a fun-to-take test on one’s ability to speak English.  Here’s an equally fun-to-listen-to performance of that test.  How do you compare?
YouTube Preview Image

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Test Your English Pronunciation!

The following verbal exercise was forwarded to me; it apparently originated on a British website.  It is a hoot of a test of one’s English pronunciation.  See how you do!  (A link to a “correct” performance tomorrow):

If you can pronounce correctly every word in this poem, you will be speaking English better than 90% of the native English speakers in the world.  After trying the verses, a Frenchman said he’d prefer six months of hard labour to reading six lines aloud.

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.
Hear me say, devoid of trickery,
Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,
Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,
Exiles, similes, and reviles;
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far;
One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;
Gertrude, German, wind and mind,
Scene, Melpomene, mankind.
Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Viscous, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward.
And your pronunciation’s OK
When you correctly say croquet,
Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.
Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
And enamour rhyme with hammer.
River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,
And then singer, ginger, linger,
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.
Query does not rhyme with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.
Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath.
Though the differences seem little,
We say actual but victual.
Refer does not rhyme with deafer.
Foeffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Mint, pint, senate and sedate;
Dull, bull, and George ate late.
Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific.
Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
Mark the differences, moreover,
Between mover, cover, clover;
Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police and lice;
Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label.
Petal, panel, and canal,
Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal.
Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor.
Tour, but our and succour, four.
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Sea, idea, Korea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion and battalion.
Sally with ally, yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.
Heron, granary, canary.
Crevice and device and aerie.
Face, but preface, not efface.
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
Large, but target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging.
Ear, but earn and wear and tear
Do not rhyme with here but ere.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.
Pronunciation (think of Psyche!)
Is a paling stout and spikey?
Won’t it make you lose your wits,
Writing groats and saying grits?
It’s a dark abyss or tunnel:
Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!!!
English Pronunciation by G. Nolst Trenité

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A Talk Segment Blueprint

Yesterday, my son, Anthony, had laryngitis, so I filled in for him on “The Ponce Brothers” on WLS Radio 890AM.  The main topic that older son, Dan, and I took up was Maggie Daley’s death.  Thought you might be interested in some of the bullet points I prepared ahead of time.  We didn’t get to everything, but is there anything I missed?

  • Why did so many Chicagoans connect with her?
  • The way she handled her illness?
  • How she influenced the mayor and raised his awareness about the arts, culture, beautification?
  • Other ways she was an asset to the mayor?
  • Her political clout behind the scenes?
  • Anecdote about how the mayor thought Gallery 37 was a stupid idea when his staff recommended it — not knowing at first that Maggie was behind it.
  • Defining moment for Maggie and mayor:  the death of their young son, Kevin, from spina bifida?
  • Her legacy?
  • Does the public put too much pressure on first ladies–to be perfect, to be role models?
  • The line between a first lady’s public role and private life?
  • Did she create a template for Amy Rule?

Presidential first ladies

  • What makes an ideal first lady?
  • Reaction to Michelle Obama and Jill Biden getting booed recently at NASCAR race?
  • When does a first lady push things too far?  Pressure to stay on “safe” causes like nutrition, fitness, beautification?
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A Perfect Holiday Film

I just watched a remarkable and stunning documentary on HBO called “The Sound of Mumbai.” It’s had a huge impact on me.  It’s a particularly good film to watch with your family during the holidays.  I don’t know when I’ve been so affected by a film.  If you watch it, I think you’ll see what I mean.

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Clothes Make the Man?

I was interested to read about the the dust-up between Cook County Commissioner William Beavers and the head of the juvenile jail, Earl Dunlap.  Apparently Dunlap once testified before the County Board in clothing that was a bit too casual for Beaver’s taste:  a white polo shirt tucked into his Dockers.  Here’s an exchange between the two as described in the Sun-Times:

“Do you own a suit?” Beavers asked Earl Dunlap in 2008 as he lectured that “your appearance commands respect” and told him he’s “supposed to be a role model.”

That exchange apparently was the beginning of bad blood between the two.  And there’s a picture of Dunlap in the Sun-Times as he was dressed that day and I have to admit he does not sport a fastidious look.  Beavers, on the other hand, is a snappy dresser–always in a suit complete with pocket square.

Beavers is not exactly considered a reformer and once famously referred to himself as the “hog with the big nuts.”  But he did strike a chord with me regarding dress standards in general.  For example, when I’ve covered trials in federal court, I’m amazed at how some jurors dress.  Not that men have to wear suits and ties, but please, t-shirts with text?  Guys, is it too much to wear a nice pair of slacks and a dress shirt?  And, ladies, a Bears sweatshirt is fine for raking leaves, but maybe you can take it up a notch when you’re going downtown to temporarily be part of the federal judiciary system.

Given his reputation, Beavers has no credibility with you?  Don’t buy anything that comes out of his mouth?  Just remember this:  even a broken clock is right twice a day.

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50 Ways to Leave Your Employer

Recently Chicago Tonight lost a couple of young staffers to great, new career opportunities.  They were wonderful colleagues and, while very sorry to see them go, I am happy they are doing what all young people should do — explore new paths and learn more about themselves.  Each left graciously; there were teary eyes, good-bye celebrations, and everybody’s sincere wishes for their success.

But when someone leaves a job, I can’t help but think of my favorite passage in literature on the subject.  It comes from Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham.  Philip, the protagonist, has been miserable working as a clerk.  When he decides to leave, he has the following exchange with his immediate supervisor, Mr. Goodworthy:

“For ten months I’ve loathed it all.  I’ve loathed the work, I’ve loathed the office, I loathe London.  I’d rather sweep a crossing then spend my days here.”

“Well I must say, I don’t think you’re very fitted for accountancy.”

“Good-bye,” said Philip, holding out his hand.  “I want to thank you for your kindness to me.  I’m sorry if I’ve been troublesome.  I knew almost from the beginning I was no good.”

“Well, if you really do make up your mind it is good-bye.  I don’t know what you’re going to do, but if you’re in the neighbourhood at any time come in and see us.”

Philip gave a little laugh.

“I’m afraid it sounds very rude, but I hope from the bottom of my heart that I shall never set eyes on any of you again.”

How’s that for going out with candor?  No need for an exit interview, I would say!

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An American Reporter in London–Back When!

All the hoopla about the Bears playing in London brings back a lot of memories from the first time the team played there.  It was back in 1986 when they played the Dallas Cowboys at the old Wembley Stadium.  At the time, I was a reporter for WBBM-TV Channel 2 and was sent to London to do “sidebars” — human interest stories — while the team was there.

Among the things I learned:  unlike their American counterparts, British television crews did NOT eat in their cars between assignments.  As the chief photographer of my crew told me, “If we can’t sit down for a proper bite, Phil, we’d rather not eat at all.”  Wow!

The accepted “personal space” to conduct an interview was much different in England than in America.  Here, chairs are set up just a few feet apart for an interview.  In Britain, my local crew regularly put me at least a couple of yards from the person I was interviewing.  As a result, psychologically, I could barely get a question out.  I just felt too far away.

Americans living there for years joked (and bemoaned) the fact that Brits they had encountered for years at their children’s school, for example, would still not speak to them because they had not been “properly” introduced.  Americans on extended assignment also said that in business settings, Brits did not shake hands nearly as much as Americans and that British men wore a lot less jewelry.  The list goes on.

I wish there’d been a book for me to read like Rules Britannia: An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom by former Brit, now-Chicagoan, Toni Hargis.  Hargis explains the multitude of social differences between the two cultures.  The bottom line of the book:  Britain is not just America with an accent (and conversely, America is not just Britain without one!)

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Keep Those Allusions Coming

Even now when being technologically savvy seems to trump so many other skills, I believe the best grounding is in the liberal arts.  (I have a personal bias toward literature.)  Encountering the writings of great minds is a good way of modeling your own writing and speaking skills.  If nothing else, one’s writing can be enhanced by an occasional literary reference that shows you can, at the very least, connect the dots between what you’ve learned from others and what you’ve experienced personally.

There are several examples of that in the new book I’m reading, Arguably:  Essays By Christopher Hitchens.  For example, in an essay dismissive of Prince Charles and the British monarchy in general, Hitchens writes:

A hereditary head of state, as Thomas Paine so crisply phrased it, is as absurd a proposition as a hereditary physician or a hereditary astronomer.

For those of us not that familiar with Paine’s writings, the allusion serves several purposes:  It makes a point in a way that is relevant and funny, the reader learns something about Paine, and lastly, it shows us that the writer making the allusion has some academic chops and credibility.

Here’s another example.  In an essay about women and humor, Hitchens makes the point that Rudyard Kipling saw through the premise of male humor based on the notion that women are not really the boss, but are mere objects and victims.  It’s from Kipling’s poem “The Female of the Species”:

So it comes that Man, the coward,

when he gathers to confer

With his fellow-braves in council,

dare not leave a place for her.

Not that many people, I bet, can quote some of Kipling’s lesser known works.  Can allusions to one’s learning run the risk of making someone come across as an educated smarty pants?  Probably.  But, what a pleasure it is to have a writer regard his or her readers as adults who are not threatened by someone who’s bright, educated and can turn a phrase.  Smarty pants are okay in my book!


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