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Presidential Debates "Will Likely Be of Little Consequence," Prof. Jeff McCall '76 Writes in Washington Times

September 26, 2004

September 26, 2004, Greencastle, Ind. - "In theory, presidential candidates directly debating in a national broadcast is a great idea. Barring a major gaffe or a cute one-liner, however, the upcoming debates will likely be of little consequence," writes Jeffrey McCall, professor of communication at DePauw University, in an op-ed published in today's Washington Times. "Sad to say, the electorate is currently poorly served by the debate venue, largely because candidates and their handlers make sure little debating actually occurs."

Dr. McCall, a 1976 graduate of DePauw continues,"Some past presidential debates have affected the elections, but good debating had little to do with it. Jimmy Carter said he wouldn't have won the 1976 election if not for the debates. That might be so, but surely Gerald Ford's blunder in declaring there was 'no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe' had more to do with the election result than Mr. Carter's debating technique ... Presidential elections are too important to turn on a misstatement or a consultant-designed one-liner, but that's where things stand in political debating."

The professor puts much of the blame for "warping the process" on television, "an emotional medium [which] provides information inefficiently. A candidate who would try to make debating points with sound reasoning and ample evidence would come across as boring and calculating. Thus, candidates are well advised by handlers to play it safe and stay 'on message"'with simplistic catchphrases or neatly repackaged minispeeches. It matters little what question is raised; the candidate simply pulls up a previously rehearsed answer."

More often than not, "style trumps substance" in presidential debates. He suggests, "Voters who want to follow the coming debates more than superficially might consider listening over the radio or reading a newspaper transcript the next day. They should focus on anything that distinguishes one candidate from the other. Ignore the majority of the material on which both candidates agree. Everybody is against terrorism, loves his country and wants a robust economy. Voters should consider whether the candidates have any material to back up their campaign slogans. When Mr. Bush says, 'We've turned the corner,' he needs to indicate which corner and what evidence shows it has been turned. When Mr. Kerry uses the word 'wrong' in every sentence about Mr. Bush, can he provide the standard for determining 'wrong'?"

McCall points out that viewership of presidential debates has been reduced by about half since 1980, suggesting the impact of the forums is diminishing. He suggests, "It might be just as well public interest is declining in presidential debates. Deciding a vote based on a candidate's TV debating skill is just not a good idea. There is little transferability of debating ability to, for example, managing a Cabinet, overseeing the military, or bargaining behind closed doors with leaders of Congress. Early in September, Mr. Kerry urged Mr. Bush to have weekly debates until the election. Given that neither presidential contender has proven a great campaign orator, even the agreed-upon three debates -- the first on September 30 -- will be mind-numbing enough. These will not be Lincoln-Douglas quality debates, and it's unlikely they will be studied 146 years hence."

Read the complete column at College News.org.

Last month, Jeff McCall's op-ed on the declining health of local television news was carried by a number of newspapers across America. Learn more here.

Source: Washington Times

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