MARK KARLIN, EDITOR OF BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
As the so-called primary debates continue, one cannot emphasize enough how corporate television and the two major parties have conspired to reduce democracy to entertainment. Yes, it could be argued that the Democratic debates have allowed for a bit more substance than the Republican sparring matches. That, however, is only a relative judgment.
As Candice Bernd recently noted in a trenchant Truthout analysis, what are called primary debates are actually corporation-branded spectacles. They are opportunities for large media conglomerates to enhance their brand image, sell advertising, provide publicity for their "star" reporters, provoke titillating "exchanges" that attract more viewers (and advertisers), create more interest in the election and build relationships with politicians who make decisions about corporate media legislation. Of course, the primary debates whet the appetite of viewers for more election coverage - and enhance spending on political advertising on corporate television, eventually resulting in a windfall of billions of dollars.
In an October 14 BuzzFlash commentary on "privatizing democracy," I noted how the primary debates are negotiated directly between the two major political parties and television stations. As far as we can tell (although the DNC did not respond to our queries about the agreement for the CNN debate in October), the TV stations that air debates own the copyrights to them. That is why, thus far, one can only watch an individual debate on TV on the pay-TV station airing that specific debate (although CNN and the FOX News Business channel allowed free Internet streaming).
Anybody who tunes into a pay-TV primary debate expecting an actual debate will be profoundly disappointed. These aren't political conversations; they are a combination of corporate positioning opportunities and sound-bite sparring. Plus, consider the news coverage that airs the day after a so-called debate. You will generally find an evaluation of who "won" and "lost," based on caustic interpersonal comments, body language and pre-prepared sound-bites. Rarely is there a solid mention of public policy.
Comcast, Time Warner and Fox, among other corporations - with the full collaboration of the two major parties - have turned discussion of the pressing issues facing the United States into World Wrestling Federation matches.
In fact, a recent segment of The Daily Show With Trevor Noah featured CNN anchor Jake Tapper promoting the October Democratic CNN Las Vegas debate to viewers. In the video (below), you will hear Tapper pump up the debate by comparing it to a boxing match. Tapper asks, "Could one of these five candidates land a blow...or has been known to happen in Las Vegas, could someone get overly aggressive, causing a rival to lose a piece of an ear?" Tapper then launched into a series of analogies comparing the debate to gambling in a casino (which, indeed, was where the debate was held).
Jake Tapper promoting October Democratic debate in Las Vegas: "Could someone get overly aggressive causing a rival to lose a piece of an ear?"
In regards to the collaboration between the two major parties - negotiating individually - and corporate television in the structuring of the primary debates, I talked with Janet Brown, executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates.
Brown, in a phone interview with BuzzFlash, made it emphatically clear that the Presidential Commission on Debates has nothing whatsoever to do with the primary debates, whose structuring, format and packaging she appeared to regard with disdain.
Brown expressed frustration that many individuals, organizations and media confuse the Commission's responsibility for arranging the autumn 2016 debates between the candidates of the two major parties (although theoretically a third party candidate could be included as Ross Perot was in 1992) with the primary debates.
The commission has already released its schedule for the three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate before the 2016 election, which are listed here.
Although a pool of six television stations are primarily responsible for the financial arrangements and airing of the commission-arranged debates, they are available on free television - and by arrangement with the six-station pool (ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, CNN and C-SPAN). All commission debates are located within universities, unlike recent primary debate settings that included a casino and the Reagan Library.
Many rightfully criticize the commission debates, arguing that questions have historically been too tame, reflecting DC-insider conventional wisdom. However, the commission at least provides a level of non-commercialism and access that befits a debate about the future of the United States. Brown struck me as a person who believes that issues - not spectacle - should form the basis of a presidential debate.
In our conversation, Brown appeared conscientious and earnestly concerned about providing a forum that informs viewers of their voting options based on policy. Whether or not the 2016 pre-election commission debates achieve that goal, given the micro-strategizing of presidential campaigns - and the tendency of journalists to stick to questions that stay within conventional frames - is open to question.
However, the commission's concerns about informing voters of their choices are a welcome contrast to self-promoting corporate television primary debates ginned up as “main events” - and covered as sporting matches.
Not to be reposted without the permission of Truthout.