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Presidential "Debates" are "Farces" with Little Real Value, Argues Prof. Jeff McCall '76

November 6, 2011

2525November 6, 2011, Greencastle, Ind. — "Sen. John Kennedy wrote a magazine article in 1959 in which he warned the public of the harm the mass media could wreak on the nation's political process," recalls Jeff McCall, professor of communication at DePauw University. "He feared that political dialogue would become infested with 'gimmickry,' and public relations experts would dictate the direction of political discussion," Dr. McCall writes in an Indianapolis Star op-ed. "Kennedy's warning is particularly apropos now as we watch a wearying string of televised 'debates' among GOP presidential candidates."

The widely quoted media critic states, "Make no mistake, these televised joint appearances by the candidates are media events designed solely to further the interests of the television organizations that sponsor them. They are not done to enlighten the electorate or provide public service." 

The professor continues, "The events (they can't really be called debates) are sponsored by news organizations to give a boost to their brand image, to spark a ratings surge and to showcase their news personalities. The broadcasters even interrupt the candidate interactions with commercials to make 103032sure they get the financial benefit from the ratings bump these events generate. These broadcasts do spark ratings, even if political insight doesn't materialize. A cable channel can expect 5 million to 6 million viewers for a forum and then benefit from the audience flow into the following program."

In McCall's view, "There simply are too many candidates on stage to create meaningful interaction." He also opines, "The journalists who act as questioners and moderators too often want to be part of the show."

Calling the square-offs "farces," the professor writes that 8 so-called debates have already taken place this year,3961 with another dozen to come. "A major issue is whether skilled television debate performance is a legitimate indicator of qualities that make for a good president. Does the rhetorical situation of such television events ever get duplicated for a sitting president in dealing with Congress, the Cabinet or international leaders? Hardly. The president is chief executive, not the leader of a debate society. Citizens can watch these spectacles as entertainment, but if they really want to assess which candidate would make a good president, they should look for alternative methods of assessment."

Professor McCall concludes, "It is scary to think the Republican candidates might well spend more time in debate strategy and preparation than they do in issue development. Here's betting each campaign has more media strategists, PR spinners, debate preppers and image consultants on staff than economists or foreign affairs advisers. That, however, is the way the game is played these days, with candidates having to cater to media-directed events and media demands. Kennedy knew of what he spoke."

The complete essay mccall fox june20009 1can be found at College News.org.

A 1976 graduate of DePauw, Jeffrey M. McCall is frequently called upon by major news outlets to discuss media matters and has been quoted in more than 100 newspapers. Last week, he discussed NBC's new Rock Center with Brian Williams in the Los Angeles Times. He was also recently quoted in the Christian Science Monitor and Washington Post.

McCall is the author of Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences and serves as faculty adviser to student radio station WGRE.

Source: Indianapolis Star

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