Reporter's Notebook: Worth Debating?

There is some value to the mediation. Whether it's appreciated by this viewing party or others, who knows? Though none of the network television stations were bold enough to throw "fact checks" on screen while the debates were happening, bloggers were furiously submitting their versions of Internet sticky notes with factoids and sources highlighting errors by both candidates as the two gentleman uttered them.

For example, during the post-debate show, ABC News' Jake Tapper told Peter Jennings about overestimations by John Kerry on the amount of money spent on the war in Iraq (it's not $200 billion as the senator said; according to the Congressional Budget Office, it's only $120 billion) and President Bush's statement that 100,000 Iraqi security forces have been trained (according to the Department of Defense, there are only 50,000 trained and their readiness is in question).

The substance might be something Bryan Lattimore remembers, but being in the advertising world, he was as interested in strategy. In his opinion, niche audiences are the only ones likely to have their decision swayed by a candidate's posture on particular issues. For him the aggregate will sway based on which campaign is able to execute the best strategy through the debates. Similar to any sale, the campaigns have to get a gut reaction out of the voter.


There have been several conversations and articles in the past weeks about the book No Debate by George Farah, which details how staged these events have become. Farah makes a lucid case on how the process of the debates has changed from spontaneous and raw exchanges of opinions and ideas to micromanaged events in the interests of the two parties and to the exclusion of everyone else. Farah also shows how systematically the debates have become so nonconfrontational, to the point where the events might as well be called a joint news conference.

It almost seems ironic that in this world, where reality television shows rule the roost, that television networks would let such a controlled affair take place. It seems like ratings would be higher, the less predictable the event.

Window-dressing is how Alfonso Holloman sees this tradition. He'd prefer a much more open and flowing format, where the individual who has the quicker mind and clearer agenda is at an advantage. He knows that the masses will not be swayed by one debate, or two or three, that they won't likely go home remembering which candidate stood for bilateral versus multilateral talks with North Korea. He concedes that the decisions, for the most part, have already been made by most voters, and this last month is merely an opportunity to calcify a viewpoint.

As the martinis flowed past me, I realized that we aren't ever likely to value public speaking and debating as, say, the British do. We aren't going to bring "question hour" to the Senate floor once a week — unless Mark Burnett, the creator of Survivor, has something to do with it.

If the next two weeks are simply about appreciating more window dressing, then we'd better get used to the idea that this might just be, as a cardiologist from New York's Upper East Side put it, a democracy on a marionette.

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