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Release: Dec. 20, 1999

Televised presidential 'debates' don't fit their own billing

IOWA CITY, Iowa—Kennedy and Nixon's tête-à-tête in the first nationally televised presidential debate in 1960 ushered in a new way for White House aspirants "to stump across America." In recent years, such televised debates have become a campaign season fixture, but debating today, is much different from the format Lincoln and Douglas made famous generations earlier.

Today's televised presidential debates are hardly that, says David Hingstman, University of Iowa assistant professor of communications studies and faculty advisor for the A. Craig Baird Debate Forum.

"If it resembles any format at all it is group discussion," says Hingstman, who directs the UI's nationally ranked intercollegiate debate team. "The format worked because of the state of the media then; now it's designed to accommodate mass media's role in elections.

"Today's debate format is as much of a test of person as it is a gauge of the candidates' styles and issues. Debating, now, is a test of composure, exposition of the party line and one's ability to stay away from negative dialogue. Orrin Hatch's proposal to have candidates travel across the country in a bus is closer to the Lincoln-Douglas style," Hingstman says.

In their campaigns for the U.S. Senate, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas faced off in a series of seven three-hour debates at locations across Illinois in 1858. The 90-, 60- and 30-minute format allowed the candidates to richly articulate, in front of large, outdoor crowds, their ideas on states' rights and abolition of slavery. The format that we now see is not the fault of television, says Hingstman, in agreement with his colleague David Zarefsky, dean of the School of Speech at Northwestern University, who has published work on the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

"Television gives us a good look at some things in an unscripted situation. We're able to see how candidates connect their own themes to the questions they're asked. What we don't see is the depth of the arguments as we would have in the Lincoln-Douglas debates," Zarefsky says.

A drawback of the current format is that viewers get a superficial look at the candidates' positions on issues. A plus, Zarefsky says, is that we're able to see how the candidate deals with changes, since presidents must react to unexpected events and changes, and also how they think through problems.

What may seem fragmentary in debating is part of a larger political campaign, but the debates play a decisive role in the election, particularly when a candidate commits a gaffe before a national audience, Hingstman says. The format is unlikely to change, both debate scholars agree. Today's style allows the candidates to control the situation, which plays to their favor.