For a bunch of self-proclaimed American exceptionalists, there’s nothing very American or exceptional about Republican presidential candidates’ list of demands for televised debates—written by Ben Ginsberg, the attorney acting as chief negotiator for all 15. In fact, they’re certifiably un-American.
“The campaigns’ [sic] will use the manner in which your debate(s) are run (and changes you say will you make from your past debates), the quality and fairness of your moderators’ questions, their enforcement of the rules, and their ability to achieve parity in distribution and quality of questions and time among the candidates to evaluate whether the candidates wish to participate in your future debates,” it reads. Apart from being comically convoluted, it’s a direct affront to US constitutional values.
The document goes on to detail a number of questions and rules broadcasters must satisfy in order to secure the participation of Republican candidates. They range from the harmless: “Where and when will the debate take place?”; to the paranoid: “[Do not] use behind shots of candidates showing their notes … Who is the moderator? Will there be any additional questioners? Are they seated?”; to the downright censorial: “Will you commit that you will not … allow candidate-to-candidate questioning … have reaction shots of members of the audience or moderators during debates?”
It’s a ridiculous and embarrassing document, to be sure—but also more than a little alarming. It surely indicates a deep, ingrained rot plaguing the Republican party; a political outfit that has become so self-conscious, so infested with paranoid narcissists that it is willing to tear the first page off the Constitution for the sake of image control.
A country that proclaims itself as the global example for the protection of free speech cannot seriously entertain this kind of behavior. If the media allows candidates to essentially dictate style and content of debates by agreeing to their draconian restrictions on format, could Americans still claim to have a fairer politics then those that elected Silvio Berlusconi in Italy or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey?
Surely, something major has shifted in the nature of mainstream political coverage over the past few decades to allow for this. And undeniably, it was the advent the internet and social media.
Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, and targeted email lists, candidates have made significant inroads on the turf that used to belong to mainstream media outlets. Candidates no longer rely solely on air time to disseminate their messages. When they aren’t feeling sufficiently heard, they can go around CNN, Fox, and the various NBCs, as Donald Trump’s colorful tweets have most notably demonstrated.
And as was clear from the most recent Republican debate, broadcast by CNBC on Oct. 30, the candidates are unafraid to stand up to the media, creating yet another layer of public spectacle. The relationship between major media and all political candidates in the United States has historically been an adversarial one—but the animosity was veiled. There was, to an extent, reciprocal if reluctant respect. The new ability for Trump, Ben Carson, and company to reach hundreds of thousands, even millions of supporters and prospective supporters by way of Twitter and Facebook, independent of any third-party editorial guidelines, means they need not be respectful of journalists. They can be outright derisive, and at the same time, cash in on (generally conservative) frustrations with the “lamestream media” and “gotcha journalism.”
All of this means the cooperative side of interaction between candidates and the press may be dying. It may even be already dead. If televised debates devolve into scripted pageantry, perhaps it would be best to do away with them all together. But that would be the equivalent of an armistice. More likely, the war will grow hotter, and the media will ramp up its “gotcha” coverage, even if most of it takes place outside of the debates themselves—if only to meet force with force.
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