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Between the lines: Televised debates no substitute for journalism

It’s often tough to be a print journalist and watch televised presidential debates that are more shouting matches than informed conversation. My colleagues in the broadcast media try their best, but getting a handful of outsized egos to pay attention to the rules, much less the facts, is like herding cats.

Then comes along a debate like the one produced on CNBC last week, and I begin to wonder whether TV journalists haven’t sold out to the entertainment division of their networks. It’s one thing to be argumentative over a candidate’s inconsistencies or half-truths – if it provokes anger, then viewers are all the more informed about how a candidate handles such pressure.

But to be insulting merely to get a rise out of candidates for the sake of ratings is sabotaging the purpose of debates: to force candidates to think on their feet and speak clearly about complicated issues. It’s not about provoking Donald Trump – who needs no prompting, anyway – with a question about his “comic book campaign.”

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The result is that candidates once again start blaming the news media for biased, uninformed coverage when the interrogators on stage certainly don’t speak for or represent the vast majority of the news media – mainstream or otherwise. And ironically, if there is any bunch of presidential candidates less entitled to accuse anyone of bias and misinformation, it is this year’s Republican lineup.

I can only hope, as a member of the print media, that voters have bought into the early season debates more for entertainment than information. There is plenty to read in the major metropolitan dailies and in newspapers in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early primary states that is in-depth about not only the candidates’ backgrounds but the impacts of their policy proposals. The Marco Rubio tax cut plan and Jeb Bush’s claims to being an economic miracle worker have been thoroughly deconstructed in the press. But since voters don’t start paying serious attention until next fall, it’s no wonder that policy lightweights like Donald Trump and Benjamin Carson are riding high in the early polls.

So what is a print journalist to do during TV debate season. Keep pressing ahead with fact checks and public records searches, insist that candidates answer serious questions in writing, publish comparative voting records and don’t let press flacks speak for their candidates. It’s the last tactic that I’m afraid has driven voters to the televised debates – at least they get to see the candidates speaking for themselves, even if it’s only to answer insulting questions for the sake of ratings.

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Randy Wilson is editor of the Arizona Daily Sun. You can reach him at rwilson@azdailysun.com or (928) 556-2254.

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