Democracy Soup

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Bob Schieffer the latest to prove debate questions aren’t helpful to democracy

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Originally published on on Thu, 10/16/2008 – 10:33am

So how well did the participants do in last night’s debate at Hofstra University? No, not Barack Obama and John McCain. How did Bob Schieffer do?

The reviews he has received have generally been positive. And I like Schieffer. Yes, his ties to Bush are disturbing, especially his brother’s. And certainly he hasn’t been all that tough on what has gone down in the last 8 years. But he seems like a really nice guy.

Years ago, I heard him speak at an awards ceremony. Came across well, and once again, as a nice guy.

Our former colleague, Ben Raybin, had nice things to say about Tom Brokaw during the Nashville debate.

“Then Tom Brokaw showed up. He was funny, kind, and a real pleasure to be around. It’s always nice to find out celebrities are genuinely nice people in real life, and Brokaw didn’t disappoint.”

Anchors and former anchors are nice people, otherwise they wouldn’t be anchors. I’m sure even Katie Couric is a nice person at times.

But when there’s a debate, I don’t really want a nice person. I want them to be civilized (which is why Bill O’Reilly will never host a debate). But I want them to be good moderators and ask good questions.

Here’s the problem: Jim Lehrer, Gwen Ifill, Tom Brokaw, and Bob Schieffer would make great moderators, and their selection reflects this. But the questions they are asking are lousy, misleading, and designed not to improve democracy, but to pull a “gotcha.”

Quite frankly, I was hoping Schieffer would be an improvement, since his day job as host of “Face the Nation” is a closer reflection of the debates than what Lehrer, Ifill, and Brokaw do. Yes, Brokaw hosts “Meet the Press,” but has done such a lousy job that he wouldn’t be brought back even if he wanted to come back.

In my previous criticisms, I have reflected on the “not helpful” nature of the questions. This time, I will address how to make the questions better.

To be fair, I loved the first question on the economic plans: “Why is your plan better than his?” This seems obvious, but when phrased this way, it tries to force the candidates to think of comparison terms.

The next question didn’t fare so well. It’s a variation of the failed question Lehrer and Ifill asked in their debates: “Aren’t you both ignoring reality? Won’t some of the programs you are proposing have to be trimmed, postponed, even eliminated? Give us some specifics on what you’re going to cut back.”

Yes, it’s a legitimate issue. But Brokaw actually asked this better, framing it in terms of priorities. The other part that bothers me is that MSM journalists, including Schieffer, care about this topic now. Where were they for the last 8 years? Where were the critical examinations of the Bush economic policies that got us into this mess?

This feeds into the corporate mentality that we can afford to burst open the deficit, but once it is burst, we can’t afford to help Americans and programs that make our country better.

My other criticism of the way the question was offered implied that each proposals would be equally damaging. From what I’ve read on each proposal, both might raise the deficit, but one is much more responsible than the other.

There is a limited amount of time in a debate. Wasting it on a question already asked twice seems petty and out of place.

Health care was addressed, but again, in a way that implies we can’t expand help because of costs: “Given the current economic situation, would either of you now favor controlling health care costs over expanding health care coverage?”

We spend more money per person than any other country yet we have 47 million uninsured. Ironically, Schieffer phrased the education question in this exact fashion. Right idea, but should have also been extended to health care.

“Do either of you think you can balance the budget in four years? You have said previously you thought you could, Senator McCain.”

This question blew me away. We have the Chicken Little scenario painted by Schieffer, yet we can somehow balance the budget in four years?? Both these questions imply that we can’t, or shouldn’t, invest in this country.

If Schieffer, as well as other MSM personnel, feel this way, they should say so. If not, what about a question that asks where we should invest money. “Where do you feel like we aren’t spending enough money?” Yes, there will be issues about priorities, but the previous two questions don’t ask them in a positive way.

And if you have to phrase this in a negative matter, how about this: “Both of you have said you will go through items in the federal budget. But presidents can’t do this. So how will you work with Congress to get them to make changes you want to make?”

The question of the reduction of foreign oil was phrased in a 4-year mentality. The problems of this country are severe. The idea that everything gets solved in four years is approriate in a society when problems are solved in a 30-minute sitcom or 60-minute drama. Both Obama and McCain were smart to address the issue on a 10-year timeline. Short-sighted thinking (which the corporate media loves) is where this country has gone wrong.

Schieffer could have asked “you both have elaborate programs that will take time to develop. What specific things would you push as president to reduce our oil consumption right away?” He could give examples, such as increasing CAFE standards or even focusing on inflating tires.

I also thought it was bad form for Schieffer to blatantly ask the “say to each other’s face what your campaigns and the people in your campaigns have said about each other” question. If McCain wanted to bring up Bill Ayers or ACORN, he should have done so within a different question. This was clearly a chance for McCain to air his dirty laundry. There wasn’t a single issue facing the American people that was asked or answered in that question.

The other major criticism is that there is apparently no difference between negative campaigning (pointing out flaws in the other candidate’s health plan) and cheap shots. Saying McCain’s health care plan taxes benefits is seen as negative; Sarah Palin saying Obama “palled around with terrorists” is seen as negative. Equating them is certifiable lunacy.

For every irrelevant question, there were missed opportunities. On the topics completely blown off by Schieffer:

Immigration – McCain mentioned the word “immigration”: “You’re running ads that misportray completely my position on immigration.” Gee, what was McCain’s position on immigration? What was Obama’s position? Not important?

Trade – McCain, to his credit, brought up trade. Obama talked about trade. We could have had a nice discussion on trade with a focus. But Schieffer whiffed on this.

Having 90 minutes for domestic policy is a travesty of the system. But the time could have better spent to give the American people a better reflection of the major candidates for president.

The good news is there are no more debates. But 2012 is around the corner, and we need to fix the debate system. Bring in real reporters as a panel to ask questions. Give us topics important to the country, not to boost each campaign. These debates aren’t for the candidates or the moderator – they are for us, the American public. And we aren’t getting what we need, or deserve.


Written by democracysoup

October 16, 2008 at 10:33 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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