The Media Today

Not up for debate

October 24, 2022
Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., speaks next to an empty podium set up for Republican challenger Herschel Walker, who was invited but did not attend, during a U.S. Senate debate as part of the Atlanta Press Club Loudermilk-Young Debate Series in Atlanta on Sunday, Oct. 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Ben Gray)

On Friday, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat defending a competitive US House seat in Virginia, and Yesli Vega, her Republican opponent, did not meet for a debate. They were supposed to, but the plan “started to crumble,” the Washington Post’s Meagan Flynn reported, after Spanberger objected to the appointment, as a co-moderator, of Larry O’Connor, a radio host and columnist at the right-wing website Townhall (sample recent content: “Democrats Say MTG is Stoking Violence, But They Are Hypocrites”); Spanberger’s campaign said that O’Connor has previously disparaged her and other Democrats, including in interviews with Vega in which, per Flynn, he directed listeners to Vega’s website so that they might make donations. The debate’s organizers said they’d picked O’Connor because he was familiar to Vega—and had picked Lisa Desjardins, a reporter at PBS, as the other moderator because she had interviewed Spanberger in the past—but also acknowledged that they hadn’t heard the comments that Spanberger’s campaign flagged and had possibly been guilty of a “process failure.” The organizers offered to find an alternative moderator, but Spanberger dropped out.

According to Flynn, the involvement of O’Connor was not the only reason the debate fell apart, even if it was the most eye-catching: Desjardins separately dropped out as a moderator amid an apparent disagreement over the framing of questions, while Spanberger’s campaign also cited concerns about insufficient security. The campaign accused Vega of blowing up the debate, including by insisting on O’Connor as one of the moderators, but Vega responded (and the organizers confirmed) that she had only requested that the debate be televised, adding in a subsequent interview (on O’Connor’s show, no less) that Spanberger was “running scared.” This was despite the fact that Vega had ducked a separate debate, planned for last month, that was to have been held at the University of Mary Washington (in conjunction with community groups and news outlets) and moderated by Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist there—rejecting plans for Virginia public media to broadcast the debate as insufficient, and taking a potshot at Spanberger’s “college campus” base. The pair now aren’t expected to debate at all.

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The blow-up didn’t attract much attention outside of Virginia, but it was emblematic of a broader national trend: a decline in candidate debates across the map amid a parade of mutual recrimination. Earlier this month, the Brookings Institution found that only seven debates had been scheduled in the country’s five most competitive US Senate races to that point, down from seventeen in 2010; last week, the New York Times reported that nine competitive races for Senate and governor would feature just one debate each. Herschel Walker, the scandal-plagued Republican Senate candidate in Georgia, agreed to one debate, then received the empty-podium treatment after refusing to show for a second, a treatment also afforded this midterm cycle to Eric Schmitt, the Republican Senate candidate in Missouri, and, last night, Tim Walz, the incumbent Democratic governor of Minnesota. The Pennsylvania Senate candidates John Fetterman, a Democrat, and Mehmet Oz, a Republican, will meet for their only debate tomorrow. (Oz has accused Fetterman of avoiding him. Fetterman, who had a stroke in May, accused Oz of contriving debate “concessions” that mocked his recovery; he will use closed-captioning technology at the debate, as he has done in multiple recent media interviews.) The competitive Senate race in Nevada will pass without a debate, as will the governor’s race in Ohio, where the GOP incumbent, Mike DeWine, has said that voters already know where he stands on the issues. In New York, the incumbent Democratic governor, Kathy Hochul, has agreed to one debate but said that she “doesn’t have time to stand on a street corner screaming into the wind” because she’s busy running the state.

There are time-honored reasons why political candidates have sometimes skipped out on debates (or threatened as much), from haggling over the format—the allotted time, the identity of the moderator, and so on—to not seeing participation as politically advantageous, a particularly common motivation for candidates who are comfortably ahead in their races and thus have particular reason to fear a game-changing “gaffe.” Reasons for the recent decline, however, are rooted more troublingly in America’s current political and media environment. “In midterm campaigns across the country, direct political engagement has been falling away,” Lisa Lerer and Jazmine Ulloa wrote for the Times last week, citing three main factors: “security concerns, pandemic-era workarounds and Republican hostility to the mainstream media.” I wrote about the latter trend in August, in the context of Republican candidates also limiting access to their events and refusing to participate in news stories and profiles, for reasons that ranged from a desire to avoid scrutiny to a recognition that they can actively leverage media avoidance into a badge of honor. Since then, Doug Mastriano, the election-denier Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, has refused to participate in debates moderated by mainstream outlets, citing their supposed “hidden partisan agenda.” Meanwhile, some Democratic candidates have refused to share a stage with election-denying opponents, stating that they don’t want to give a platform to dangerous lies. Katie Hobbs, the Democrat running for governor of Arizona, has been one such candidate. Kari Lake, Hobbs’s election-denier opponent, has in turn hammered Hobbs as a “debate denier.”

The traditional debate format has been in peril for several cycles now. As with other manifestations of Republican media avoidance, the trend arguably gained steam, on the right, with the ascent of Donald Trump, who benefited greatly from the traditional debate format in 2016 (certainly in the primaries) and yet lambasted organizers and moderators for being biased; in 2020, he skipped one of his three scheduled debates with Joe Biden after the Commission on Presidential Debates shifted it to a virtual format following Trump’s hospitalization with COVID. In the spring of this year, numerous Republican candidates bailed on primary debates despite not having to share the stage with any Democratic candidates; in Pennsylvania, several Republican gubernatorial campaigns told the media that they would only participate in debates with moderators who were registered Republicans and had not “maligned” any of the candidates in the past. Turning back to presidential debates, it’s currently uncertain if there’ll be any in 2024, with the Republican National Committee moving this year to disavow the CPD—which has institutionalized the organization of presidential debates on a bipartisan basis since the eighties—as “biased,” and instructing Republican presidential aspirants to boycott it.

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Observers have noted that another reason candidates skip debates is a growing view of their obsolescence: the notion that few voters watch them these days and that those who do have often made their minds up before tuning in. This has often been cited as a result of growing polarization in the electorate, but, as I wrote during debate season in 2020, it may also have something to do with the fact that the press tends to cover debates more as pro-wrestling than a substantive exchange of policy views; if we treat debates as a sport, should we be surprised when those without a rooting interest in one “side” eschew them? When we’ve seen debates at all, this sort of coverage has sometimes recurred during this cycle; when they’ve risen to the level of national media attention, it’s often been a function of a viral “moment”—Walker pulling out an honorary sheriff’s badge, for example—or a dissection of who won and lost. Candidates ducking out of debates is, typically, cowardly; often, the empty-podium treatment is a justified response. Equally, if the press is liable to boil debate coverage down to soundbites and knockout blows, should we be surprised when candidates view them as a risk?

As I’ve written often in this newsletter over the years, there are other problems with debates, and the way the press talks about them. Particularly when they feature one candidate from either party, they risk baking in a sort of false equivalency, with the candidates subject to the same rules even if one is engaging in typical partisan spin and the other is, say, an election denier; this can be navigated by aggressive moderation and real-time fact-checking, but some candidates lie at such a pace that even skilled moderators struggle to keep up, and organizers—including, in 2020, the CPD—often don’t see fact-checking as their responsibility. Debates are nonetheless, to my mind, worth saving as one part of the mainstream media’s coverage at election time—they are an opportunity for scrutiny; at their best (and arguably, sometimes, at their worst) they directly illuminate the choices voters face—and, as I’ve written here before, there are ample ways in which the media might make them more useful for viewers, even if only at the margins. Needless to say, if debates don’t happen, we can’t improve them at all.

After the disastrous first debate of the 2020 presidential election, when Trump trampled all over Biden and the rules, I wrote that improving candidate debates would require not only format tweaks but a media reevaluation of how we cover debates, in the broadest sense of that term: a reckoning, in other words, with our willingness to put policy disagreements at the heart of political coverage, and not relegate or oversimplify them for being wonky or dull. In a functioning democracy, these two senses of the term “debate”—the in-person and the more abstract—shouldn’t be neatly separable. It should come as no surprise, then, that debates, in the first sense, have declined in the US with debate, in the latter sense, in such poor shape.

Yesterday, the Times published a deep dive, by Jennifer Valentino-DeVries and Steve Eder, on an uptick in vilifying rhetoric among members of Congress, finding—based on an analysis of nearly four million tweets, ads, newsletters, and speeches—that the many Republican lawmakers who voted to overturn the results of the 2020 election have recently “far outpaced” other Republicans and Democrats in their use of incendiary labels for their political opponents. Jennifer Mercieca, an expert in political rhetoric at Texas A&M University, described this sort of rhetoric as “‘devil terms’—things that are so unquestionably bad that you can’t have a debate about them.” Of course, there are also facts that are so unquestionable we can’t debate them—or shouldn’t, at least. Being an election denier is far worse than being a “debate denier.”

Below, more on debates and democracy:

  • Vega v. Spanberger: Last week, the editorial board of the Free Lance-Star, in Fredericksburg, Virginia, squarely blamed Vega for the lack of debates in her race against Spanberger (which is in the paper’s district), including the one scheduled for Friday from which Spanberger pulled out; “While it is true that Spanberger ultimately pulled the plug,” the board wrote, “it’s equally true that Vega was uncooperative with debate organizers.” Meanwhile, after the Post tagged Vega as an election denier in a recent analysis, the Free Lance-Star reached out to her for a response, but she failed to offer one. “Vega’s refusal to interact isn’t surprising,” the editorial board wrote. “She has never acknowledged our offer to put her views before our readers in the opinion pages. She refuses to return phone calls or answer questions from the Free Lance–Star.”
  • Legislate for that: Recently, David Knight Legg, the chair of the debate platform Intelligence Squared, argued in an op-ed for Politico that “debates are so critical to a healthy democracy that they should be made essentially mandatory for candidates,” before offering proposals as to how this might be achieved. “States should pass bipartisan legislation establishing requirements for debates so they aren’t subject to the fickleness of campaign managers,” Legg writes. “In the absence of legislation, campaigns that choose to opt out should still be made to pay dearly. TV stations that sponsor debates can continue to hold them and ensure absentee candidates are highlighted by an empty chair with a ‘will not debate’ sign printed beside their name.”
  • It has happened here: Last week, Jamelle Bouie, a columnist at the Times, argued that we should conceive of the relationship between democracy and autocracy in the US not as a light-switch transition or a gradual journey, but rather of “authoritarianism as something like a contradiction” that has long “nestled within the American democratic tradition.” If US democracy backslides further, “there’s no reason to think that most elites, and most people, won’t accommodate themselves to the absence of democracy for many of their fellow Americans,” Bouie writes. “After a time, that absence of democracy may become just the regular order of things—a regrettable custom that nonetheless should more or less be left alone because of federalism or limited government. That, in fact, is how many politicians, journalists and intellectuals rationalized autocracy in the South and reconciled it with their belief that the United States was a free country.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.