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Democratizing The Debates

by Kathleen Hall Jamieson
March 31, 2019

This interview with Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the Elizabeth Ware Packard Professor of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, the Walter and Leonore Director of the university’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, and Program Director of the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands, was conducted and condensed by frank news. 

This is part one of an ongoing conversation. 

We're focused mostly on Presidential debate this month. How it works, why it works the way that it does. We’ve really looked at Democratizing The Debates, and the suggestions you put out.

I love my suggestions.

It's a great committee.

It's a really cool committee.

I would love to go through some of the suggestions with you, but I want to start with the Presidential Debate Commission, who are the people, at least with general election debates, in charge.

Yes. They're in charge. They don't have any statutory authority. So they're in charge because they put themselves in charge, and because the candidates granted them the right to do that. Nothing says an alternative model couldn't be set up. The question is, would the candidates embrace the alternative model?

And show up.

And show up. If the candidates said, "We like this model better and we're going to show up here," the Debate Commission has no basis from which to argue the candidates have to show up at its venue. One of the purposes of the recommendations was not to set up an alternative, it was to try to get the Debate Commission to adopt recommendations that we think would improve the quality of the debates.

But they have a model underlying their debates that is problematic. Because they have a live audience as an integral part, and we warned in the report about the hazards of a live audience.

We saw our concerns realized in 2016 when the Republican campaign brought individuals to the debate with an intent to rattle Hillary Clinton. And also when you heard audiences audibly responding to questions. If you take a look at debate three, the third presidential debate, exclude the vice presidential debate, in which Chris Wallace is asking the questions. Take a look at the question that he is asking about the Russian-hacked WikiLeaks released segments from a Clinton speech, in which she talked about open trade and open borders. At the point at which he's asking the question, you hear the audience applauding and responding favorably to the question. You hear Donald Trump thanking him for the question, and you hear Chris Wallace telling the audience that it's supposed to be quiet.

Now what that is doing, and we have research to show this that we reported in the document you're focusing on, was that that kind of audience cuing affects the audience at home. Two of the things we warned about, people being brought into the audience in order to try to rattle candidates happened, and secondly you had audience interaction caught on tape, and as a result are on the digital record, and as a result, potentially influence the audience at home. We don't think that's fair to the candidates. We don't think it's fair to the process.

When you put this research out, was the Debate Commission hesitant to accept the suggestions or defensive?

They're hesitant to suggestions about the live audience because that's how they fund the debate. Their model is a costly model. They bring all sorts of preparation to a specific venue, at a specific time that is live, with a large audience there, and that increases their costs dramatically. If you simply went to a studio model, you could mount a debate in 10 days. And you wouldn't require the expense. But the tickets to get into the audience pay back the funders who fund the model that funds the commission. And so they can't get rid of the audience because they don't have an alternative funding mechanism.

They put them on university campuses and charge the students to come?

No. They have donors who contribute the costs. The universities put up money in order to get the debate. The universities raise and put up money. It'd be very interesting for you to ask the Debate Commission how many students actually get to sit in the audience as audience members in a typical debate in 2016, as opposed to are able to work as ushers. We believe that the percent of students in the audience is relatively small.

Because the tickets are essentially given out through the university to its donors, because they had to raise money to be able to bring the debate and to the two political parties or to the candidates representing the two political parties. What that means is the funding model by which they raise the money to hold the debates, and pay for their staff and the infrastructure, is gotten in exchange for the understanding that tickets are going to go back to donors who get to sit in the audience, which means the number of tickets available to students who would actually sit and watch the debate itself, as opposed to watching it on a television monitor some place is relatively small.

That's interesting.

The problem we have with the live audience is it interferes with people's ability to hear the debate as a debate, unmediated by things that are distracting and could potentially create influence.

You published a chart that shows responses without audience and responses with. It's haunting.

We had seen it in enough debates in the past that we were able to study it. If you have a single instance, you don't know that that isn't just a one-off. But when you have multiple instances in which you can clean the audio, so you can basically take out the audience response; and sometimes that's difficult because the audience response is ongoing as the candidates are speaking. Getting it to be absolutely clean is difficult. So you have to find instances in which you really can clean that audio track enough so that nobody's hearing any of those responses. But when you've got more than one instance and you see exactly the same effect, the likelihood that it is the audience producing the effect goes way up.

It makes it a much stronger inference, it's called the case confound. You've got case confound. You don't know that there aren't other things in that one instance that produced your response. But when what you have is the common element across your multiple instances being the audience interaction, your confidence that it's what produced the negative response is much higher.

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We spoke with Mike McCurry about debate interference. He mentioned how audience can also help the candidates – listing President Clinton and President Trump as two examples of candidates who were actually more effective because they were able to play off an audience well. Does that matter?

That's an argument for having one town hall debate. The audience then is the town hall. But it is not a sufficiently great advantage to take the risk that people you cannot control will be put into the audience. Bill Clinton's accusers were put into the audience by the Trump campaign and Frank Fahrenkopf of the debate commission had to keep them from being seated in a place that would have been completely inappropriate. They were going to be seated in the family section and he basically intervened in order to make sure that that didn't happen.

You can't control it. Once you have an audience model that is a live audience, it's very hard to control that. But then secondly, you can't control the audience interaction. Now, a candidate might be benefited by that. I suspect that Donald Trump is very pleased by the audience reaction to the question about open trade and open borders. I suspect Hillary Clinton is not. But you can't in advance anticipate who's going to be advantaged or disadvantaged.

Nor do you want to roll the dice that way and play games with audience response. Potentially, you're prejudicing the way in which people see the debate, debate may be decisive in a voting decision, and in a close election, that could determine outcome. Some candidates do relish the chance to interact with an audience, and it's valuable to watch them doing it. One can gain that advantage in a town hall format, which we would preserve. We preserve a town hall format. A town hall format can happen in studio and doesn't require that there be an audience beyond those who are selected for the town hall.

You also make suggestions around moderators. It’s been pointed out that when prepping a Presidential candidate, a good amount of time is spent prepping the candidate to confront the journalist. I never thought of it that way.

Well first, in the polarized news environment right now, the news outlet that is essentially hosting the debate, is the outlet that gets the moderator. They pick the moderator that gives you the network that comes in behind the debate. In this news environment, virtually every network has a political identity. Those who are advantaged by saying that the mainstream networks are liberal have increased the public perception that they are. Those who have said that MSNBC is extremely liberal or Fox is extremely conservative have increased the likelihood that people perceive that they are. So whether they are or not, that perception is there.

When a journalist comes from a network, even if the journalist is a traditional journalist and hasn't fallen into the trap of engaging in ideological commentary, and many journalists have not fallen into that trap, the journalist is nonetheless perceived as being identified with the network.

And that potentially carries political expectations that the candidate can play off of if the candidate is advantaged by doing so. If there's a person who comes into moderate who doesn't carry that baggage, you'd increase the likelihood that the moderator is simply a backdrop presence, is not a third player in the exchange.

Additionally, journalists' tendency is not to think from the perspective of the audience. It's to think from the perspective of journalism, and as a result, to ask questions that advance a news agenda, but don't advance public understanding. A lot of people watch debates who don't pay high attention to news. So a question that to you or to me because we watch a lot of news, or to a journalist because they produce a lot of news, would seem like a perfectly reasonable question because it assumes that you have a background knowledge, is not at all reasonable to a person in the audience who is saying, "What? What do they mean, open trade, open borders?" And as a result, there's not enough contextual background in some of these questions.

That doesn't mean the debates aren't useful and that those changes aren't useful. They would be more useful if the questions were more general questions and we have another part of the report that tries to speak to that.

But the other thing that we're trying to accomplish by saying, "We don't necessarily have to have a journalist who's in broadcast as a moderator," is that that person now under the debate commission model brings their network in behind them.

When the network comes in behind them, it produces the debate. We want the debate to be open to everyone else to be able to do whatever they want with it. So if the journalist would bring in the journalist's network, and the journalist's network says, "All rights are off. We claim no rights to this. Anybody can cut it up any way they want. They can refashion it into little bytes. They can repurpose it with new memes." We think this is desirable. Because we think that there's an emerging audience that's not going to consume 90 minutes of presidential debate. There's a lot of the existing audience that doesn't. The fall-off in viewership in debates is relatively high. If we open up the creativity that comes with having access, and you can do anything you want in real time, we would increase the likelihood that we get viewership.

You could solve part of our problem by having the broadcast network come in behind the journalist who's selected by the moderator. You wouldn't necessarily solve your moderator problem, but you could solve the problems with the networks coming behind by having the network agree as a condition of doing the debate that it's not its debate. That in fact, it is the debate for any use that anybody wants and that it will provide an open stream with multiple cameras so that every camera is feeding out in a way that lets you sitting on the internet provider and repurpose.

You might decide it might be interesting to always have one camera on the candidate and the other candidate is split-screened. You might want to put four screens up and put on one screen fact-checking. You could split this any number of ways. What you have is whatever your feed is off your social media network. Now people do try to create that on their handheld devices. So we know dual screening is happening. But we could make it more productive if people knew in the live-streaming fashion they had multiple camera access and could reconfigure.

We think we open creativity. We also think if we did it that way, other networks would brand it differently and would repurpose it in real-time differently. So for example, we could have the debate automatically in Spanish with Telemundo or Envision creating live events with big communities watching live stream on big live screens with all sorts of local stuff happening. It's awfully difficult for them to do that under the current scenario because they'd be branding to the network that was producing. That's not in their self-interest. So this would let them basically rebrand and innovate.

It's smart.

It's acknowledging that we're in a different age. Usually when people say, "Let's acknowledge that we're in a digital age." They say, "Well let's take some questions from people who get to vote on the internet." Okay. But that doesn't open the capacity to innovate with the content in ways that might make it more helpful for the audience on the back end. I would like in real-time very quickly to be able to preset and say I care about four issues. I want all the content on those four issues to come out to me in bytes. And then I want to create memes against it. I want to become a communicator about the debates because in my community, we really care about... And then I will repurpose them to my community in order to get discussions going and feedback loops created.

You can imagine all the ways in which the generation that is native to digital experience could recreate the debate experience while holding the core of 90 minutes for an audience that is frankly older and more accustomed to extended viewing.

The suggestion ostensibly gives young people familiar with digital the tools to make it what they want, rather than having a group of people assume what they want.

The producers try to produce for the broadest possible audience. But the reality is, producers are actually producing for themselves. Because that's the audience they project out. Whatever audience I am able to create for is going to be different than the audience you're going to create for, that is going to be different from the audience someone else is creating for. Ideally in this world, you not only would have all of those different perspectives actively creating, but we'd use the digital capacity to interact and to repurpose.

The idea that I might take a snippet of the debate, and occasionally we see this happening, and I might find a way to re-communicate it in real time, in a way that helps people interpret differently what just happened, makes us active co-creators, not simply passive re-fashioners.

When Romney in 2012 suggested that he would defund government funding for PBS, you had the Big Bird meme that happened. Very quickly. Big Bird is holding up signs, “I will work for food.” Big Bird is saying, “brought to you by the letters F U.”  Those are people who've engaged on the funding of PBS issue to say, "I disapprove." And they have essentially become a party to the debate in their own right as they communicate out, "See Romney in this context." And it's not only clever, it's substantive, because one of the things that PBS brings us is Sesame Street. Big Bird is iconic. And in that moment, a whole different way of seeing that moment in the debate occurred.

You saw it in 2016, when Donald Trump was walking behind Hillary Clinton in a somewhat odd fashion, and you immediately saw memes being generated that suggested that people should report the stalker, etc. What that does is it gives the audience the capacity to help those in their networks see something the way that they usually thought of as an observer saw it, but now it's not an observer. It's a person who is co-creating meaning. So the capacity is there for us to do something very valuable, which is us to talk to people who are in our network, and have them talk back to us, as we talk back to the process that interprets for us. It means we become gatekeepers in a different way than the system would let us.

Now we say, "What's the alternative to having a journalist?" First you have to have somebody who is comfortable having an earphone. The first thing the networks say is, "Nobody else can do this. They're not accustomed to being talked to with an earphone." It's a real critique. You don't want someone saying, "Huh, what?" because someone's talking in their ear. So it's going to have to be somebody who's got some experience with broadcast or at least can demonstrably handle the directions that come with somebody talking in your ear. And what they're talking in the ear for is essentially trying to keep everything moving. And occasionally you get things happening in debates where the moderator has to moderate through a situation, such as the power going out during the Carter/Ford debate.

It's not a small task. But you have highly educated people who can handle these kinds of functions. The question is, can you get a former judge? Can you get a former college president? Can you get a columnist who is widely respected, or a pair of columnists who are already inside television structures because they're on air enough they're used to having something in their ear. And the answer is, yes you can. It's not that you can lay up a group right now and say, "Well they would be this within this group," it's that if you knew you had that as the challenge, you would very seriously audition in the process to get to it. The thing you would lose is that some journalists bring a very deep expertise in an area and are able to frame it from a news perspective that their audiences are comfortable with.

So Martha Raddatz, she's not a general reporter. She's a specialist reporter. And she's very good at foreign affairs. With Chris Wallace, what you've got is a generalist reporter. What Chris Wallace is very good at is asking questions. The problem is he carries in the identity with Fox News. But he's a very traditional journalist in terms of what he does. So you would be asking to see whether you can decouple the broadcast problem, which is bringing in the network which means you've got branding, if you're going to keep the journalists. There'd be some journalists who do this very well, they have done it very well.

If you can't decouple that, then you're looking for someone who is able to take directions in their ear and not get into the debate themselves.

Candy Crowley made a mistake in 2012 fact-checking a debate in real-time, and she was wrong. So you have to make sure that you've got the restraint not to make a mistake. Max Frankel made a mistake in '76. His fact-checking of Gerald Ford on the so-called liberation of Poland was inaccurate. Gerald Ford was stating what had been a traditional presidential position of Republicans and Democrats. He didn't state it in an articulate fashion, but it is the traditional position. Frankel made that a gaffe. Ford didn't make that a gaffe. And for the week after that debate as the press is pressuring Ford to say he'd made a mistake, Ford is legitimately saying, "No I didn't. That is the position of the United States."

Finally, because he's flatlining in the polls, he says, "Alright, mistake, mistake." He didn't believe it was a mistake. History says it wasn't a mistake because what he was actually describing, what happened in the Gdansk shipyard. That is, the people in those countries behind the Soviet bloc never thought they were controlled by those countries. They were asserting their freedom. And that is what he meant to say. The government position of the US always was, "We will not acknowledge the legitimacy of the Soviet control. We will assert that the right of those people to be free is an absolute right."

So you have to be very careful in that position, that you don't make the arrogant mistake of intruding yourself into the process and potentially changing the dynamic.

The same thing happened in the Bush/Clinton debate where the moderator, Carole Simpson, basically tries to rephrase an inarticulate question in a town hall and in the process, mis-phrases it and makes Bush look worse than he already had looked, because the question was fundamentally inarticulate. They've solved the problem of inarticulate questions because now they're submitted in advance. But if you go back and look at that exchange, the young woman who asked the question is not asking what she thinks she's asking. And George Herbert Walker Bush is trying to literally interpret her question, when you can't. It makes no sense. Then Carole Simpson comes in and again tries to re-interpret the question and that's not what she meant either, so now George Herbert Walker Bush tries to adapt to Carole Simpson.

He looks bad because that situation trapped him. I'm not suggesting that he was an articulate person or he should have been re-elected president. In that moment, however, the debate structure hurt him and it was unfair.

Is it part of the suggestion also that the moderator then plays a lesser role?


Can you talk about how their role would be pulled back?

Well the instances I've cited are the exceptions. Most debate moderators have acted the way Jim Lehrer acted. And I think he has moderated more debates than any other person. He no longer moderates them. The reason that he was selected so often is because he stayed absolutely neutral. And so you don't see moments in which he does something to change the dynamic in a way that disadvantages the candidate. Occasionally, he will call for clarification. I mean you look for his call for clarification; I actually wish he'd done it more often. He tries to make sure that the clarification comes from both sides. So that you don't have the candidates talking past each other.

The goal of a moderator is not to become the third debater in the debate. It is to tee up a question and let the interactions work within the constraints of time.

Now one problem is the moderator is also responsible for keeping the time and holding the rules. And there are times in which the moderator actually got the rules wrong. The moderator says to a candidate, "No it's not your turn," and the candidate says, "It is." It looks as if the candidate is being difficult, but the candidate is accurate. So in those moment, the candidate looks bad, but the candidate is in the right. It's a hard job to keep track of the rules on live television with audiences in excess of 60 million people.

The goal is to be neutral, to hold to the rules, and to tee up really good questions that help the broadest swath of the electorate. And when you hear confusion, so that a reasonable person would not understand the exchange, to step in and say, "I want to pause for a moment for each person to tell us what they mean by that term." Occasionally, those kinds of interventions clarify dramatically, so it's a tough job. But the more neutral the presence, the fairer the process.

I don't believe in fact-checking in real-time in debates. I know I run

I was going to say...

I don't believe in it. Unless you're absolutely certain that it has been checked and rechecked and what they've said is exactly what has happened before. The language is the same as the language you've checked. I mean got its national audience thanks to Dick Cheney. We went from this tiny little operation in 2003/2004 that was set up to help journalists adjudicate facts, to a process with a national audience when Dick Cheney cited us in a Vice Presidential debate in 2004. Called us That wasn't our name. People ran to There was a surge against our servers. Our servers crashed. We were set up to deal with 10-20,000 journalists. We weren't set up to deal with millions of people coming to our site.

The funny part of it is, he said, dot com. So they went to a site called That was a site that was owned by a nine-year-old girl and we tried to buy it. She sold it to another company who sold it to another company. It wound up being owned by George Soros. So when people went to it, they got an appeal against Cheney and Trump, because he was supporting Kerry. People then typed in the org, because they figured they must have gotten something wrong with com. That's when they started crashing our servers. But Cheney's citation of us is what made us national.

So can a candidate use the fact checkers in the debate? Yes. He got us wrong. Because Edwards had not used the same attack in the debate that we had checked the night of the debate. On the news that night, you heard our fact-checking on network news, because we'd fact-checked Edwards' statements against Cheney. Cheney's debate coaches told him if they cite Edwards just say cited that, and said it was inaccurate. That's what he did. Edwards made completely new claims because he knew we'd already fact-checked him. So we had this bizarre circumstance in which if the audience didn't come to us, they wouldn't have known Cheney was mis-citing us. But since he mis-cited us, and got our name wrong, we got all kinds of news play about them getting our name wrong, which meant we got to correct Cheney's mis-citation of what we’d done and we put our new fact check in the process.

So we were launched out of a marketing strategy that was extraordinarily clever. Get the Vice President to mis-cite your name. Wish I could figure out how we could do it again.

The idea is then to not do it live, but rather have this as a place people can come to after the debates.

Yeah, and have all the preexisting fact-checking available, which is part of what I like about dual screening. It gives you the capacity when a claim comes up. If we've already checked it, we will post in real time, and so will the other fact checkers. As soon as we've checked, we will post. Sometimes we've posted before the debate is over. But in some cases, you're doing fresh checking. It's a new claim. But what the multi-screening lets you do is run out a stream on all the fact-checking that is there in real-time. If that's how you want to watch the debate.

If you want to watch it talking to your friends, you can do that, too. Now all that currently exists. The current structure will let you do that. We just want to increase the likelihood that individuals can then interact with the content and those who are not getting the debate as the outlet, the privileged outlet spreading the debate, have as much capacity as that outlet to reuse the content.

And that would be the network branding it less as their own personal debate.

Right. This is just the debate. This is just the debate. You could call it the Presidential Debate Commission's Debate. The problem is, if you don't let the network do that, the network isn't going to pay for it.

That's when we thought philanthropy should step in and just put up the funding. It would get rid of the audience, if you put up the funding.

It would be a lot cheaper, too.

It would be a lot cheaper.

But the networks use it to promote themselves. Three, four days before the debate, they're hyping it. They're asking people to send in questions and blah blah blah. But that's unfair too. I mean, we note in the report, there aren't enough debates for all the major outlets to get a debate.

So why do the debates play favorites?

It's a good question. What do you think about the DNC taking the debate away from Fox News?

They didn't take it away. They're just not letting them have it.

What do you think about that?

I think if you're producing the debate, you should be able to put it any place you want. But notice my model, you wouldn't have the question. In my model, there wouldn't be a Fox News, MSNBC, NBC, ABC.

Right. Don't use any of them.

And then expect all of them to cover it. Our worry in the primaries is the audience that you aggregate up in the primaries is harder to aggregate. So a general election, everybody's going to vote.

We'd like everybody to vote. They're not all going to. So you've got a natural audience that's large. In the primaries, there really only is one, sometimes two, sometimes three, voting opportunities. The rest of the nation is basically a voyeur. So how do you aggregate up an audience that's large enough to increase the likelihood that you get the electorate educated over time? There's some advantage in the primaries to letting the networks promote the heck out of their debate to try to increase the size of the audience.

Our report didn't deal with primary debates, but it raises the interesting question, should you put a debate if you're Democrats on Fox, if you're Republicans, do you put one on MSNBC? And I would guess the Republicans are just as leery of MSNBC. A Rachel Maddow debate, can you imagine a Rachel Maddow debate? That said, Chris Wallace is a straight reporter. He does not play ideological games.

I mean there are players inside the networks you could trust to do it. You just don't know what else goes on. They're going to recruit the audience. And they're recruiting it from their constituency. You certainly don't want to have a Fox News debate for Democrats, because you're going to have an audience that's going to be disproportionately conservative.