Media critics, foreign policy experts, and human rights advocates are charging that questions asked by the moderators of the televised debates among U.S. presidential hopefuls have frequently been trivial and designed to produce conflict to boost ratings, while ignoring many of the most pressing issues facing the United States.
Danny Schechter, editor of MediaChannel.org, a media watchdog organization, told IPS that the failings of the candidate debates "lie with the whole process which focuses on personalities, media mediated discussions, and what I call ‘electotainment’ stoking conflict, not searching for solutions. Heat, not light."
His view was echoed by many others who are harshly critical both of moderators for failing to ask a wide range of serious questions and of candidates for failing to raise these questions.
So far, 20 debates of the presidential contenders have been televised. They were sponsored principally by cable television news channels such as CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, and moderated by TV anchors joined by a few print journalists. When the Democratic Party chooses its candidate the Republicans have already effectively anointed Sen. John McCain of Arizona the two contenders traditionally participate in at least a few televised debates, as do their running mates for vice president.
While important subjects were discussed in the debates health care, world trade, the economy, education, terrorism a wide range of other areas were largely ignored. The questions never or rarely raised by primary contest debate moderators include such issues as presidential signing statements, the limits of presidential authority, separation of powers, the role of the courts, warrantless wiretapping, rendition, the Guantanamo detention center and military commissions, secret CIA prisons, and many other civil liberties and human rights issues.
"It seems as if that there is almost an agreement among all the parties not to deal with these subjects," Michael Ratner, a law professor at Columbia University and president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is defending a number of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, told IPS.
"The Democrats wrongly believe that standing up for rights will make them appear weak on terrorism; the Republicans probably do not want to brag or be responsible for these inhuman and or unconstitutional practices at least not publicly in a debate. The moderators probably understand this," he said.
Mary Shaw of Amnesty International USA told IPS, "It is very important that the candidates honestly share their views and intentions regarding these issues . We were blindly led into a war in Iraq. We cannot afford to be blindly led into further atrocities in our name and with our tax dollars."
Patricia H. Kushlis, who spent more than 25 years as a U.S. foreign service officer and now co-hosts the widely respected foreign affairs blog WhirledView.typepad.com, believes these issues "are crucial to the survival of American democracy."
"If, in the televised debates, the presidential candidates are being let off the hook on these and other crucial national issues, then the fault, in my view, lies foremost with the media representatives and organizations conducting and televising the debates," she told IPS. "This means, in particular, with the formats chosen, the questions asked, and the ways those questions are framed."
Many activists and analysts interviewed for this article also blame the media more than the candidates. Patricia Sharpe, an international affairs specialist in politics, public diplomacy, and national security and a co-host of WhirledView, told IPS, "I can understand why the candidates might not originate such discussions: They are complex and controversial. What’s not easy to understand is why the issues haven’t been forced on the candidates by the interlocutors."
For some critics, there is more than enough blame to go around. Brian J. Foley, visiting associate professor at the Drexel University College of Law, told IPS, "I blame the commentators, but more I blame the candidates themselves. Why are they running for president if not to right these grievous wrongs, the misdeeds and modus operandi of an abusive president?"
A number of academics also have also been critical of the debates. For example, Edward S. Herman, an emeritus professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told IPS, "In a real democracy, substantive issues should be central to election debates, as knowing what candidates stand for on such issues ought to be the key basis on which voters choose."
"This is especially the case today in an election that follows an administration that has run roughshod over constitutional principles, the famous checks-and-balances system, and the rule of law itself. If these matters, including the use of signing statements that implicitly ignore the legislative will, and the right to engage in torture and hold anybody in prison on executive say-so as an ‘enemy combatant,’ cannot be debated, we are in real trouble. And we are."
In his column, "Media Matters," Jamison Foser noted that there has been only one question about wiretapping, no questions about FISA (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), no questions about rendition, habeas corpus, telecom liability, or the Bush administration’s "rather skeptical view of congressional oversight."
Instead, he says, most of the questions have trivialized the process. He cites examples such as whether the Constitution should be changed to allow Arnold Schwarzenegger (the Austrian-born governor of California) to be president, what costumes the candidates would be wearing for Halloween, and whether former Democratic candidate Congressman Dennis Kucinich had seen a UFO (unidentified flying object).
Foser says, "It’s easy to imagine one excuse some journalists will offer for ignoring these matters: The American people just don’t care about habeas corpus and wiretapping. They care about ‘likeability’ and whether they’d enjoy having a candidate ‘in their living room’ for the next four years and whether candidates are ‘comfortable in their own skin.’ They just don’t care about things like the Constitution. That’s bunk. Pure bunk, as recent polls demonstrate."
He cited a poll conducted for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in which 61 percent of the U.S. public said they think the U.S. government should have to get a warrant before wiretapping conversations between citizens and people in other countries, and majorities of voters want the next president to restore habeas corpus, close Guantanamo Bay, not allow the president alone to determine who is an enemy combatant, and end torture as U.S. policy.
As Michael Ratner pointed out, "On occasion, a candidate has something to say regarding a couple of these subjects, but only briefly. If you asked almost anyone who has listened to these debates, they would be hard pressed to articulate a candidate’s position on these topics. It is all very grim and not a strong signal that we will see a more sane policy soon."
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