Candidate Debates Are a Sham

Island Voices Commentary, Honolulu Advertiser, Oct. 2, 1966

by Tom Brislin

Post-election analyses that have Jeremy Harris snatching defeat from the jaws of victory because of arrogance revealed by debate "-gate" or "debacle" beg the central question: Do the election debates, as currently structured, make any significant contributions to the electorate or serve any real journalistic purpose?

(The question gains increased relevancy as Mr. Harris, beset with the zeal the convert, has embraced a slew of televised face-offs with opponent Arnold "Anytime-Anyplace" Morgado.)

The answer is a simple "no."

The "debates," as has previously been pointed out by numerous observers across the political spectrum, are not debates in any sense of the term. (They do not, as sponsors like to rationalize, show how the candidates "think on their feet.") At best, they demonstrate the quality of the briefers who prepared their candidates with unidimensional answers to get on the air -- often regardless of the questions asked.

In the quest to score "civic good guy" points in backing such candidate speak-offs, the sponsoring agencies give up all semblance of journalism. Candidates don't want to take part in forums that will make them uncomfortable. A major job of journalism is to make candidates (and officeholders) uncomfortable -- so that we, the voters, can be more comfortable in the leaders we choose.

So who wins?

Not the journalists, who are forced to sit on their hands for an hour, looking nice for the camera (great ties, guys), and repress every journalistic instinct that got them their featured roles in these televised minuets. In the attempt to gain some civic credibility by sponsoring the "debates," the respective news agencies sacrifice journalistic integrity, throwing it to the air(waves).

Credibility grows out of integrity, not its absence.

This is critical to note: Journalists are not allowed to act as journalists, while candidates are free to romp over, around, beneath and behind questions without actually answering them.

(The journalists aren't allowed to say "Hey, you never answered my question. It's an important question, one that thousands of folks are interested in. You gonna answer it or not?")

They're not allowed to roll their eyes when a candidate gives an off-the-wall response.

They're not allowed to stop someone like Frank Fasi in his tracks when he said nobody knows who this Jeremy Harris is or where he came from -- his real name and Social Security number included. No journalist was allowed to say:

"Well, Mr. Fasi, what name did you put on his paycheck for six years? What Social Security number did you report to the feds? After all, he was your employee. Are you saying you hired someone for the most important job in the city without knowing anything about him?"

In short, the process puts a muzzle on the journalists, representing the people, and gives the candidates carte blanche, regardless of whether it's during the "debate" or in a following exclusive interview. (And let's be honest. From the chilling restrictions on journalistic questioning, the garrulous Joe Moore didn't have much fire to hold Harris' feet to in his strikeless but stroking post-forum interview.)

Here's a not-so-modest proposal: If we can't get the candidates to agree to a real, formal debate, then let's not dilute both that process and the journalistic one. Let's divide the hour by the number of candidates plus one. (The last segment will be used for a wrap-up analysis).

Each candidate draws the name of a journalist from a hat. That candidate then sits down across from that journalist for an uninterrupted period of questioning - ala Diane Sawyer or Mike Wallace.

The journalist is allowed to act like a journalist, asking tough and incisive questions and holding the candidate's feet to the fire until they are answered. They are allowed to comment on candidate answers and posturing. The candidates don't have briefing notes behind a podium. (While not thinking on their FEET, per se, they still would be forced to think. )

If sponsoring news agencies want to solicit questions from the public to enhance their civic commitment, as in the "Pop 94" effort, so much the better.

At the end of the interviewing, another journalist (or respected political commentator), again drawn by lot, gives an overall analysis of candidate performance in how they directly and honestly answered questions.

That's one way that journalism can directly benefit the electorate in helping to make informed decisions in voting. Journalism should do journalism's job, not merely provide well- dressed and scrubbed props for candidates' pre-fabricated and poll-approved position statements.

(NOTE: Parenthetical material included in this version was edited out of published version.)