A hush fell in the crowds as Steve Edwards, Deputy Director of Programming at University of Chicago, walked on stage to introduce the key speaker for Wednesday’s, Oct. 3 event before the 2012 Presidential Debates.
Being referred to as the “Father of televised presidential debates,” Newton N. Minow has quite a long history with what was about to take place that evening between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney.
A key phrase that Minow, former Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has been known for was said in a speech given to the National Association of Broadcasters convention on May 9, 1961 assaulting commercial television, stating: “I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.”
More recently, in 2008, Minow co-authored a book with Craig L. LaMay, an associate professor of journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, entitled Inside the Presidential Debates: Their Improbable Past and Promising Future.
The first question Edwards asked Minow at the program questioned the meaning of the subtitle of his book, their improbable past.
“In many ways the debates were really an accident,” Minow said.
Minow attempted, and failed; to instead of having the conventional campaign where candidates promoted all over the country, there would be a series of televised joint appearances.
It would not be addressed again until Stevenson writes an article for a magazine proposing a new type of campaign along the same suggested televised appearance Minow made in 1955. Stevenson was asked by Congress to testify, which Minow assisted in his testimony, and he persuaded Congress to run a test in 1960 only and only for president.
Minow and Stevenson’s tight for televised appearances for presidential elections lead to the Kennedy-Nixon debates, which were in Chicago, but were also important for Kennedy.
“President Kennedy told me after he was elected that he felt he would have never been elected had it not been for the debate,” Minow explained.
It would not be until 1976 that another televised presidential debate would be held. Edwards asked Minow why there was a 16 year hiatus of televised debates.
“Congress refused to change the law in 1964, 1968 and in 1972,” Minow said.
In 1964, Lyndon Johnson “wasn’t interested in debate” his incumbent, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Johnson didn’t want to give his Goldwater a chance that would elevate him in a debate, Minow explained.
“In 1968, Richard Nixon was a candidate and he told Congress he didn’t want to debate. So, Congress didn’t act on that. In 1972, Richard Nixon was the president and told Congress he did not want to debate again,” Minow explained further.
“So, their law, which I emphasize, was only for 1960 and only for the president,
It would be in 1976 where the public views the second televised presidential debate. What was shocking about this debate was Gerald Ford was the incumbent.
“The law was changed, not by Congress, but by the FCC on the petition by reform groups,” Minow explained.
The FCC revised it interpretations of the Equal Time Law. News events, by law, were exempt from the law. The FCC then decided that debates would be considered news events.
These would then fall under the justification of being exempt from the Equal Time Law. So, without Congress, the impediment of the law made it impossible to have debates in 1964, 1968 and 1972.
“The FCC opened the doors to debates” in the 1976 Presidential Elections for the Gerald Ford,” Minow said.
For Edwards this program has allowed him to see how fragile and recent the history of presidential debates is in today’s culture.
“They’re actually a very recent development really only going back consistently since 1976. And even throughout there’ve been plenty of moments where they just might not happen,” Edwards said.
During Wednesday’s presidential debate, many viewers recognized that there was a new format for the debate. This year, each of the 90-minute presidential debates was moderated by a single individual, Jim Lebrer, not a panel.
“We hope the new format will provide for focused, extended discussion and be entirely different from the disappointing primary and caucus debates,” Minow said.
Some people may ask why elections need debates; Minow explains the necessity of hearing both candidates.
“Without debates, what will usually happens is the democratic candidate is listened to by democrats. The republican candidate is listened to by the republicans. And you don’t hear both sides at the same time,” Minow said.
One of the benefits of having a debate for a candidate includes the possibility of swaying the public’s vote towards them. If a candidate has a strong presence, platform and argument during the debate, that candidate has the possibility of influencing undecided voters and independent voters. Edwards believes that Wednesday’s debate will have little change on the public though.
“One of the things we know about this election on the basis of all the polling is that there are very few undecided voters right now. Most people have made up their minds. I’m not sure how much tonight’s event will necessarily sway people,” Edwards said.
In attempts to have the candidates respond to each other, the new format challenges the previous format to an actual debate format.
“These are not debates,” Minow said. “These are nothing more than a national job interview.”
Defending himself, Minow explains why debates are not real debates and also why they should not be real debates.
“What you [the public] really want out of these debates is a combination of where does the candidate stand on the issues and also is this a candidate that I can trust and can respect. Can you get a feel and personality of them as a person,” Minow said.
Looking back at the debate and/or re-watching the debate, viewers and voters can see the impact changing the format of the debate had on the content, moderating and even time limits. With social media instantly commenting on positives and negatives of the debate, many attendees of the program found the new format flawed.
This piece was originally published in The Columbia Chronicle.