I’ve been watching a lot of debates on C-Span, House and Senate races.
Aside from the fact that lies and distortions are prominent—and the majority of those by Republicans—what is really clear is that the formats of the debates are constructed in a way that virtually guarantees that most of what any candidate says is bound to be superficial or just plain meaningless. I’m talking about the amount of time give to each candidate to answer questions and for rebuttals.
In most cases it’s around a minute (in a very few debates the amount of time for response and rebuttal is as much as a whopping 90 seconds!) When a senator or member of congress goes over the allotted time, a buzzer goes off or a bell rings—as if they were a dog or a lab rat in an experiment. Why stop with a bell or a buzzer? Why not have the candidates hooked up to an electric current—give them a quick shock when they go over 60 seconds? That’ll teach ‘em to try to express themselves above the level of pea-brained game show contestant.
I saw one debate, for Senate in New York State, where the incumbent Senator (Kirsten Gillebrand) and the challenger (whose name I can’t remember) each had 15 seconds to respond. FIFTEEN SECONDS!
What an insult this is (not necessarily to a lot of the candidates who are often blathering time hogs) but to listeners and voters. The moderators and candidates are always exhorting the viewers to make sure to vote—but the previous hour they’ve been chopping up thought and speech about the fundamental issues of democracy to the point where you don’t really have and real content to base your vote on.
Having talked on the radio for nearly 40 years and had over a thousand guests (and taken many thousands of phone calls) I know very well, from the broadcast side of things, that while some people talk too much, most people need more than a couple of minutes to formulate an intelligent response to any question that has real content to it. I remember having my engineer at Sirius radio telling me constantly to have a guest or a caller get to the point or just get off the phone. And it’s true (their level of education and knowledge doesn’t matter) a lot of people will go on too long—they repeat themselves or blunder around out loud, trying to make a point or to even find a point to make. The job of the host, I figured, was to find a balance—always given the time allowed—between an intelligent comment or question and some meandering statement that didn’t have a strong point to it in the first place.
All this current superficial, brain-numbing, addlepated gibbering is a reflection of modern radio and TV—especially political talk TV.
During this election run-up I’ve been watching some shows on MSNBC. Most of the hosts and guests and reporters talk as if they were running the last twenty yards of the 100 yard dash at the Olympics; as if they were being chased by a hungry lion or under some other threat of imminent bodily harm if they don’t talk as fast as possible. The guests, when they can get a word in edgewise, get interrupted, cut off for another guest or a video clip or a commercial.
So what takes place in this feverish frame of five or six minutes (a long segment for cable TV) is that a host and three panelists all comment on some complicated question or situation—They know that one of the five hundred commercials is looming, so they rush their remarks. Their brains, after a decade or more of this speak-fast-or-die conditioning are set up to feed thoughts to their mouths in thirty second bites. The result is generally cacophony and chaos. If you’re very lucky, you might, occasionally hear a well-formulated opinion or set of facts in response to a question.
It’s not the guest’s fault—or even, necessarily, the host’s. It’s just the way commercial TV is structured. There are so many ads that there just isn’t enough to time to make real sense. They all wind up looking and sounding like hysterical pigeons when the shadow of a hawk falls over them.
So the debates are run exactly like the most inane and speed-fractured television shows.
I guess the majority of the public (and this goes for left, right, uneducated or educated) is presumed to be incapable of watching or listening to anything longer than 30 or 40 or 60 seconds.
I suppose we should be grateful that the candidates are given even that long to formulate a thought and to respond. After all, TV commercials typically switch shots and sounds every second or two. TV commercials and cable political shows are capable of inducing anything from high anxiety to outright psychosis. The conscious, reasoning brain (even in the most unconscious and unreasoning people) needs time to think and to speak—if they intend to make sense. Of course, somebody like Trump doesn’t intend to make sense, just to make a point—so he doesn’t need to think before he speaks.
This speed-freak thinking and speaking and typing is something most people—at least beneath the age of 50—are used to now. In iPhone world, the world of instant and increasingly brief communication—everybody is jabbing and jabbering on their phones 24/7. We need fast questions and instant answers and that’s just what we’re getting. The price being paid for all this speed is that thoughts and words lose their meaning.
I think also, that this demand to think and speak in thirty second bites about serious and complicated issues leads to a real depletion of the ability or even the desire to be moral. I think that the answer to a question is no longer measured by how intelligent or even moral it is, but only that it fits into the time allowed. Why bother with facts or intelligence or morality when you don’t have the time to actually think or speak—and all that matters is that you make a point in the brief time allowed. Why be right or real when being fast and effective is the only real requirement?
Of course, politicians have been distorting reality for their own purposes long before speed-universe ate the world. A lot of people, particularly politicians, need to be told to keep it brief. Given the opportunity (Bill Clinton used to do this), they will speak forever, especially if no one puts a limit on their remarks.
It’s good sometimes to put a severe limit on these prevaricating or repetitious and predictable human fog-horns. But now we have gone far in the opposite direction.
Recently I was reading about the famous Lincoln Douglas debates before The Civil War. They were debating the meaning the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, state’s rights and slavery, the very continuation of The Union itself.
The structure of the debates was that each man had an hour—an hour!—to make his point. Then each was given a half hour for rebuttal. The debates ran about three hours each. There was no moderator; there were no bells or buzzers or commercials—just intelligent, reasoning people trying make their point and, at the same time, make moral and intellectual sense.
Last night, during a senatorial debate, this was what I heard: “Candidates, the final question is: Given the precarious state of the environment and the devastation wrought by climate change and global warming, what will you do about this problem if you are chosen to represent this state in congress for the next six years? You each have thirty seconds. Thirty fucking seconds to tell people what they would do about the planet self-destructing!
Apart from the rich and the powerful making up all the rules and trampling all over real democracy, we have to know that, in the end, we get the kind of democracy we deserve.
In a country where people who make the laws and shape our future have thirty seconds to talk about the end of the planet, what can we expect?