Politicians are corrupt. Voters base their votes on marketing and money. Politics is not the same as “real” work. The media as a whole has a liberal bias.
If only it were that simple.
I ran for Congress in 1996. I’d never run for public office before, and there were many things I had to learn. One key skill was how to respond to reporters. Since I had little money for my campaign, most of my exposure was via free media, as opposed to paid ads. That meant something would be in the news, and I would be asked to comment, or I would call a press conference to make an “announcement,” followed by questions.
When I ran, most local media sources were pretty conservative. The majority of registered voters in this area were Republicans. Democrats could be found in pockets here and there, but most locals then—even in the gay community—were self-described “economic conservatives,” concerned primarily about the economy while being non-dogmatic on social issues. Oh, sure, we had those few rabid pro-life factions, or critics of “liberal” education (like sex education in schools), but mostly, local voters wanted the economy to keep working, with the underlying belief that smaller government was in people’s best interests, and government should work effectively but be non-intrusive.
When most reporters pose questions on a specific issue or news story, they generally already know what slant they expect to give the story. The questions they pose are intended to get a response that fits that narrative.
If you only catch politicians on the news, you’re lucky to get, at most, 15 seconds of their response to a question. So how does the candidate make sure you get their best sound bite, regardless of how the piece is edited? Politicians have a bottom-line message they want people to walk away with. What I learned was that no matter what questions were asked, every answer had to include my sound bite, because I never knew which 15 seconds would make it onto the air. The reporter might ask five or six questions; each answer must sound responsive, but you still need to get the sound bite in there. While you’re doing it, it seems horribly repetitive, but it’s the only way to overcome whatever slant the reporter may have.
Students who want to go into media take courses to learn how to interview. Business people and public figures join organizations like Toastmasters to learn about eliminating “um” and “er” and “ya know” from their speech patterns. But who teaches politicians about the ability to be responsive in a way that will actually inform?
Debates are clearly different than interviews, if only because candidates are up against others who may be more skilled at the techniques. Those trained as lawyers, for example, are good at jousting with questioners, but they can also come across as argumentative. Educators can come across as pedantic. Business executives can come across as clueless about the difference between being “the boss” and leading a government.
The most recent GOP presidential debate, on CNBC, was roundly criticized for political bias, badly framed questions, poor research and a lack of follow-ups. It’s not that smart, probing questions weren’t asked; it’s that questions were clearly framed to generate controversy rather than inform. Even when good questions were asked, the participants went after the panelists rather than responding to enlighten voters.
As an example, when Donald Trump was asked whether his campaign might be described as a “comic-book campaign,” that was an opportunity for Trump to talk about the substance of his campaign (which is not always readily apparent). A good communicator would have easily made that pivot.
Let’s face it: When you’re president, reporters shout out questions all the time, often slanted to push a specific narrative or challenge a decision. If the president can’t handle that, how is that individual going to resolve intractable conflicts, both domestic and foreign?
I like to separate policy and politics, and I believe either is an appropriate subject for inquiry in a debate—they just should not be confused as being equivalent. The idea that candidates should only be questioned by people who share their ideology is ridiculous—but that is what’s currently being demanded by the candidates. I would think the opposite would be more enlightening: Only those who disagree with the candidates should ask questions: Let’s really see how they deal with having their ideas challenged.
Here are the kind of questions I would ask if I were running a presidential debate:
- What is the very first action you will take as president that will make the clearest statement about your administration’s focus?
- You claim one of your highest priorities is to create jobs, yet you also say that government itself doesn’t actually create jobs. How do you reconcile those two positions? What specifically can government do to create jobs without controlling the private sector?
- You may not have a Congress run by your own party or one that agrees with your priorities. Is bipartisan support something you would pursue? How?
- On what issues are you not willing to compromise, no matter the result?
- Is the threat of America as a superpower more important than soft power—the ability to negotiate and convince? Or does one require the other?
- How can we influence other nations toward peace in areas of the world that are plagued with violence and political upheaval? Would you ever act alone?
- What is government’s role in addressing homelessness and extreme poverty?
- With some states not as concerned as others with expanding access to medical care, what is the federal government’s role, if any?
- Education has always been seen as a locally controlled system. What exactly should be the federal role be in education?
Since the debate formats have been challenged, here are my suggestions for a format that should be followed regardless of party:
- No more than eight candidates should be onstage at the same time. Have a lottery to decide which candidates take part and hold as many as necessary.
- Limit total debate time to two hours.
- Allow each candidate to make 30-second opening and closing statements.
- Have a red light to let candidates know when they have 10 seconds left, and a buzzer that goes off when their time is up. Moderators should be able to shut off a candidate’s microphone if they go more than 10 seconds over their time.
- Answers that are nonresponsive to the question, or that stretch the truth, should be exposed with immediate follow-up questions. Moderators need to do their homework and cite sources.
- Audiences should withhold the temptation to cheer or boo once the debate begins. Perhaps there should not be an audience.
- Candidates should not know the questions in advance.
“We get the government we deserve” has long been the mantra of those who aren’t happy with electoral results. It shouldn’t be up to politicians and political parties to decide what we do and do not have the right to know, or how questions are asked. How candidates handle both policy and political questions is crucial information for voters.
We not only need good debate panelists and fair formats; we also need to hold politicians accountable for practicing their profession responsibly. When we tune in hoping for outrageous sound bites, we end up voting for entertainers, not leaders.
It’s not the “biased media” at fault; it’s us!
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday at CVIndependent.com.