Presidential primary debates: Free speech as discussion or distraction?

November 5, 2015

By Gene Policinski
Inside the First Amendment

The great debate over the 2016 presidential primary debates is distracting and disappointing at the least, in free speech terms.

Distracting in that the most-talked about issue at the moment is concern over news media bias and news media credibility, an issue that while troubling is hardly new — or news — to many Americans.

Disappointing in that the purpose of a free and open debate — which is an exchange of differing political views without government intervention or limitation, and is at the core of why we have such strong protection for free speech — thus far seems more than an afterthought than outcome.

Lost in the national kerfuffle, which along with criticism of moderators includes debate hall temperatures and the process for taking bathroom breaks, is a real discussion over improving an already weakened process so that it informs rather than simply inflames.

A starting point for serious talk about using such debates as part of our commitment to free speech, petition and assembly is to acknowledge that the primary season — as opposed to the limited series of debates once presidential candidates are nominated — sets out what well may be an impossible task.

Take an increasingly common double-digit set of primary candidates onto a TV stage to face multiple questions on complex issues in just a few hours. Try to keep the focus on those issues and solicit real responses, even as campaign strategists and the financial dynamics of running for office today pressure candidates to simply stick to their generic talking points and attempt to motivate donors — or get national attention — with dramatic statements and rhetorical flourishes. Add in personal attack time, whether directed at the moderators, the news media or opponents.

Such a system doesn't need First Amendment protection for free speech. Let's just borrow the ropes, ring and format from professional wrestling and issue a whistle to someone who — as proposed in the latest GOP attempt to "reform" the debate structure — declares the appropriate party preference.

In 1858, the Lincoln-Douglas U.S. Senate debates in seven Illinois cities set out a format that at least put the responsibility for quality exchange of views on the candidates themselves. Future Republican president Abraham Lincoln and incumbent Sen. Stephen Douglas, a Democrat, alternated as the opening speaker for 60 minutes, with the other candidate then speaking for 90 minutes, and the first speaker closing with 30 minutes to respond.

To be sure, even then the news media role was controversial. Accounts say newspapers in Chicago sent stenographers to produce transcripts to be published in full, but that some partisan editors using the text edited their candidate's words, while letting the opponent's rough language stand. Scholars also note that from plying supporters in the attending crowds with liquor and food to increasingly personal attacks by both Lincoln and Douglas as debates progressed, there was much to criticize in even this iconic series.

As vocal critics of today's debates hold forth, some do see the events as acceptable, if not admirable. The Newseum Institute and the online talk leader TYT Network recently co-sponsored a discussion at the Newseum about how millennial voters will consume news of the 2016 elections. Panelists said young voters see lighter questions, along with serious inquiries, as more in keeping with how their generation shares all kinds of news and information.

Free speech matters most when we have something worth saying, regardless of whether the views are popular or not. In a political contest, this constitutional right and duty shouldn't be wasted on trivial talk or spiteful spats. The news media's role in a political debate should be to encourage, enable and on occasion, to press candidates with piercing inquiry to be specific, clear and definitive about positions or policy — or journalists have no real reason to be on stage.

The First Amendment provides us with the right to freely debate public policy with the intent of making our nation a better place in which to live. Moderators asking silly questions or candidates hijacking the process simply to shriek for attention or to shill for donor support is just wrong.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at gpolicinski@newseum.org. Follow him on Twitter: @genefac.

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