Yesterday, I hoped that Tom Brokaw might do more with tonight’s debate than Gwen Ifill did with last Thursday’s (more in the way of pressing for answers to the questions being asked).
Today, I have less hope.
Among the rules for tonight’s “town hall-style” debate, agreed to by both campaigns “as part of a 31-page memorandum of understanding that leaked out this week,” a “document that is not made public, even by the Commission on Presidential Debates, clouding the transparency of this most important of public events” (this, the same Commission with the stated mission “to provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners”):
- The in-studio questioner must not deviate from his or her question and cannot ask a follow-up question. Their microphones will be turned off after they ask their questions.
- The moderator cannot ask a follow-up.
- The camera cannot show the reaction of the questioner.
Why would Tom Brokaw show up to “moderate” this event? Why would (and does) any journalist? There is next-to-nothing journalistic about it, from the prohibitions on follow-up questions from the moderator or “in-studio questioner”—mics will be cut—to the entirely absurd restriction on questioner reaction shots, lest their frustrated faces tip off the TV audience that the candidate has not answered the question (why not have voters ask questions from behind a wall, or wearing Halloween masks?), to the entirely opaque manner in which these and other restrictions and format quirks were agreed to behind closed doors by persons (who, exactly?) who clearly don’t care about informing voters.
And yet, Brokaw has lent his good name and gravitas (years and years of gravitas-tending)… to this. Brokaw, of all people, does not have to play along. If he wanted to, he could conduct this debate on his own terms and his reputation wouldn’t suffer (if anything, it might be enhanced).
A Brokaw Fantasy:
Good evening from Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. I’m Tom Brokaw of NBC News. Welcome to the second presidential debate between the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and the Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.
The Commission on Presidential Debates is the sponsor of this event and the one remaining presidential debate.
Tonight, each candidate will have ninety seconds to answer a question posed by ….
You know what? No.
I’m Tom Brokaw. And I may not follow the rules that either the moderator (me) or you (McCain, Obama) or you (The Commission) agreed to, but I’m going to get these candidates to talk straight to the American people. [Wink]
I’m going to ask follow-up questions when the candidates ignore the question posed by the “in-studio questioner,” ahem, voter, person. Because that’s what journalists do. And that’s, presumably, why these “in-studio questioners,” er, people, voters, took the time to compose questions (to hear the answers). And that’s, presumably, why a journalist is needed to cull through all these questions ahead of time and separate the wheat from the chaff—so that the wheaty ones will actually be considered, addressed (if not, ultimately, fully answered).
The candidates aren’t having regular press conferences these days, and the way this debate has been set up enables them to, with impunity, once again avoid answering questions. I cannot let this format stand.
OK. So. Where was I?
Right: The audience here in the hall has promised to remain very polite, no cheers, applause, no untoward outbursts, except right at this minute now, as we welcome Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama….
Hey, a person can fantasize.
UPDATE: Hopes up? A “senior campaign official” tells Politico’s Ben Smith that “Brokaw wasn’t a party to the deal” [the debate rules and format] “and hasn’t agreed to it, so the campaigns are expecting follow-up questions.” So, they’re hoping for the best, but “expecting” the worst, I guess.
Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.