Debatable, part 2


Tonight at 7PM…. Lincoln v. Douglass.  Tune in….
In 1858, Abraham Lincoln, Republican candidate for the Senate from Illinois, and Stephen Douglass, Democratic candidate conducted a series of seven debates across the state of Illinois.

In these debates, each candidate began with an opening statement that lasted an hour. Each candidate then responded with a half hour rejoinder. There were then a series of cross-questions. The debates typically lasted for 7 hours.

There were complex issues to be thrashed out – slavery, state’s rights. Properly understanding these things took time.

Audience sat in rapt attention for all seven hours each time.

The issues at hand today are as important and complex as in 1858 – Iraq, global warming, abortion. And as potentially volatile.

But do you think an audience would have the attention span to sit for an hour opening statement by each candidate – let alone 7 hours of political discourse? What would become of any network (or network executive) who committed to something like that?

What would they say at the Today Show were this idea floated?


Instead our ‘debates’ have become an increasingly dessicated forum for short, snappy soundbites. The late Neil Postman wrote a wonderful book about this entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death.

In it, Postman notes that the demands of television to be ‘entertaining’ would ultimately destroy the fabric of public discourse.

I fear he has proven to be correct.

Postman’s book came to mind when I read “$”‘s comment:

An “authentic feel”. This from someone in the newspaper industry.

It’s not about the “feel” it’s about the content. The youtube debate was entertainment. Little or no real issues got addressed. The political process was not advanced by it. It was in fact muddied with ill informed people more interested in seeing their own faces on the screen and promoting their specific viewpoints than in addressing real issues that matter.

Of course you will push “feel” over content. It’s much cheaper to produce.

I am not sure that Anderson Cooper is not also part of ‘seeing their own faces’ as opposed to real issues and real debate.

We have all participated in the dessication of broadcast news.  One need only turn on the TV to see what has happened – and look in the White House to see the consequences of an ill informed electorate.

This was our fault.

Now along comes the web which has the potential to recreate and revitalize and redefine news.

We can take the web and just repurpose TV news on this new platform… or

or we can explore how to use this incredible new medium to really engage in a new kind of public discourse.

The only thing at stake here is our future. I think it is worth a shot.


One response to “Debatable, part 2

  1. John Proffitt

    I was asked this week by a colleague whether I watched the CNN/YouTube debate. The assumption was that since I’m a “new media” guy I would be interested in seeing it. I was not and I did not see it.

    Why not watch?

    Because little soundbite answers to canned questions from self-serving media wannabes does not illuminate any of the issues. Just because the web is involved and it’s “new” and “edgy” doesn’t mean it’s good for the democracy. Add to that the false lens of CNN that twists the process to their own ends. We’ve turned over the democratic process to a for-profit corporation. How does all this make sense for us as a nation?

    A sustained multi-hour debate would actually get my attention for the very reason that it would (eventually) break through the soundbite artifice and force candidates to finally dig in and deal with issues and show their ideas without coaching.

    Anyway — a new model of public engagement and participation is needed. Video is likely to be a big component of that model for reasons cited on this blog before.

    So… when do we get started? 😉

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