The Stealth Debates

What’s up with these presidential debates, anyway? The stealth debates, I should say, because it seems like nobody really wants us to see them. Did you know beforehand that there was a Democratic debate yesterday? It ran on ABC at 8 AM Pacific Time. George Stepanopoulis was the moderator and he worked overtime trying to make the candidates attack each other and focus on the kind of phony polarizing irrelevancies that TV news media seems to love so much. After the freshness of the questions on the You Tube/CNN debate it seemed even more irrelevant than ever.

Personally, I think there are some really hard problems we need to solve pronto. For example: extricating ourselves from Iraq without creating a blood bath, effectively dealing with global warming, and providing affordable health care for everybody. None of these things are going to be easy and these debates could be a good way to bring some of the difficult policy questions before the American people.

All the debates have been giving extra time to the three “front runners.” I put front runner in quotes because it just so happens that these are the folks with the big money and they’re going to be giving a lot of it to the networks. They’re ahead primarily because they’ve got good fund raising operations and thus, if you’re cynical, you might wonder whether they’re already bought and paid for.

We are well over a year away from election day. I want to hear from all the candidates. Biden, Dodd, Kucinich, Richardson and yes, even Gravel are the ones with the new ideas. They have less to lose and they sound a lot less scripted. Let’s hear from them. Maybe they’ll make the front runners work a little harder and talk a little more specifically.

The reason I bring this up is that there’s a media policy question at stake and it goes like this: The airwaves are a public resource. The networks license them and are supposed to use them not just to make a profit but for the public good. In the case of the HD spectrum the networks got all that extra bandwidth for free. We asked for nothing in return. Right now it seems like the absolute minimum we ought to get are debates that are widely publicized, that run at reasonable times of the day on broadcast television (not just cable), that give all candidates equal time, and that are archived on the web so anybody can see them at any time. It seems to me that, in a democracy, we should expect nothing less.

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