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National Editorials & Columns

The debate debate

Eighty-seven million Americans watched the first debate between presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. You’d have thought Honey Boo Boo was going to appear on “Dancing With the Stars.” We’d have learned more, however, if the two candidates had appeared on “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?”

The first thing the moderator does in a modern debate is tell the TV audience that the live audience has been instructed not to clap or cheer for one candidate or the other. So the obvious question is — why is there a live audience? The real audience is that gigantic TV audience, not the tiny group of people sitting on their hands in the auditorium.

Why don’t they stage the debates in an empty studio of some recently canceled celebrity TV talk show? You wouldn’t have to worry about someone in the audience breaking the rules in favor of one candidate, which is bound to happen sooner or later.
There was no studio audience for the Kennedy/Nixon debates, and they went smoothly, so where did this fake “tradition” of live audiences begin? In some TV executive’s tiny, tiny brain, no doubt. Or maybe it came from a Certified Presidential Debate Consultant — if there is such a thing. If not, you can bet some university will be offering a Ph.D. in that field any day now.

It used to be that the camera would break away from the speaker and focus on the nonspeaking debater for a reaction shot of him with a “you just used the wrong fork” look on his face. But in the Obama/Romney debate, the split screen was up almost continuously. When did they start this?

But the biggest flaw with the current debate format is not with the candidates, but with the moderators and panelists. The first debate moderator said that a portion of the debate was about the economy. Great! Bring on a couple of economists to ask some questions. Or a couple of CEOs. Or at least someone who can balance a checkbook. Journalists should report what was said at a debate, not be part of it. Lincoln and Douglas did a fine job with no reporters at all on the stage.

Another super-silly debate practice is to have the live audience or tweeters or emailers toss out questions. Debate organizers act like this is the greatest thing since Hot Pockets, while I think it is a bad idea and a waste of time. It is not because I’m a snob, or think the public isn’t entitled to ask politicians questions. Instead, it comes from something I experienced years ago during the folk music craze of the early ’60s.

There was a short-lived fad for a thing called hootenannies, in which the audience would sing along with the performers. So you would pay good money to see, say, Peter, Paul and Mary, and instead of hearing Peter, Paul and Mary, you would hear the audience sing along with Peter, Paul and Mary. But here’s the deal: I didn’t pay to hear you sing. I paid to hear Peter, Paul and Mary sing. Even if you were good (and I’m sorry, but most of you are not), that’s not what I came to hear.

Everyone seemed to figure that out pretty quickly, and hootenannies died a quick, well-deserved death, never to be heard from again.

So instead of listening to the audience sing, why not have experts on foreign policy, experts on health care and experts on defense ask the questions at a presidential debate?

Whoops! I’ve answered my own question. It would make too much sense.

Jim Mullen’s newest book, “How to Lose Money in Your Spare Time — At Home,” is available at You can follow him on Pinterest at

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