A couple of weeks ago, during a Democratic presidential debate on MSNBC, two men claiming to be journalists threw wilted lettuce and decomposed organic material at the candidates. Judging from the questions aimed at the candidate/victims, the purpose of the networks sponsoring these debates is to bait, bully and embarrass while giving the news celebrities a chance to make themselves appear superior to the dumbkins running for president. If the people putting on this show treated their pets thusly, they would be arrested.
Brian Williams started the bear-baiting with a question designed both to embarrass Barack Obama and get a rise out of Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, Tim Russert cast himself as a political Jerry Springer, posing questions that had no other purpose than to get these politicians fighting each other as they do in those daytime television spectacles. Mr. Russert left the viewer with the impression that he believes he should be running for president. His intention was plain. He was to be the superior one, the poised person with the correct answers while the candidates were made to look like a clutch of clumsy, ox-brained tangle-foots.
Mr. Russert has found a safe way to be a bully and to embarrass those who do not have the protection afforded by the role of journalist. This is not a case of media bias. Mr. Russert has no discernible political leaning. What we are looking at is a case of egotism, of self-dramatization, of the hammy display of a prancing public personality.
Here is another example of Tim Russert abandoning the role of debate moderator for that of Crusader Rabbit or Tribune of the People:
“Senator Clinton, I’d like to follow up, because in terms of your experience as first lady, in order to give the American people an opportunity to make a judgment about your experience, would you allow the National Archives to release the documents about your communications with the president, the advice you gave? Because, as you well know, President Clinton has asked the National Archives not to do anything until 2012.”
Mrs. Clinton tried to defend herself against this berserk moderator by saying, “… Now, all of the records, as far as I know, about what we did with health care, those are already available. Others are becoming available. And I think that, you know, the archives will continue to move as rapidly as its circumstances and processes demand.”
But can Mr. Russert drop it? No. He followed up with another question. This conduct might have some place in a press conference where follow-up, combative questions are employed, although usually without eliciting much information. This was not a press conference. It was a debate. By tradition, debate moderators confine themselves to enforcing the rules of the debate and otherwise keep their traps shut.
Under no rules of debate conduct is moderator allowed to mock and make fun of one of the debaters. And other than to make Dennis Kucinich a butt of laughter there could have been no other reason for Mr. Russert asking the following question:
“Congressman Kucinich, I want to move to a different area, because this is a serious question. The godmother of your daughter, Shirley MacLaine, writes in her new book that you sighted a UFO over her home in Washington State, that you found the encounter extremely moving, that it was a ‘triangular craft, silent and hovering,’ that you ‘felt a connection to your heart and heard directions in your mind.’
Now, did you see a UFO?”
To which one can only ask, “And, Mr. Russert, did you feel like the wiseass you are when you posed that question to Mr. Kucinich?” The congressman, mistaken or not in his beliefs, is a thoughtful, passionate, incorruptible and brave man. Well, Mr. Cheap Shot Artist, you got your laugh.
As opposed to Mr. Russert, moderator Brian Williams played the role of village idiot. Get a load of this from Mr. Williams: “A question for Senator Dodd. A question to you alone, Senator, about this intersection of environment and sacrifice. So many people have been saddened by the pictures these past few days from Southern California. There are reports that major cities in the state of Georgia are threatened with running out of drinking water in a matter of days. Are you truly prepared to lead, on a national scale, the kind of sacrifice it would require where it intersects with the environment?”
How is someone running for office to answer that question? Would he or she reply, no, I am not prepared to lead, at least not “on a national scale,” whatever the hell that means?
If there were any doubt that Mr. Williams has naught but three dried seeds between his ears, it is swept away by this question: “Let’s talk about life on earth. Senator Clinton, Lance Armstrong called here today with a question. He made the point, as he often has, [that][ 3,000 people, roughly, killed on 9/11; roughly $1 trillion spent in the years since. About that many people die of cancer every two days. He wanted us to ask any of you: Are you willing to be the president, or are you willing to pledge to be the president, that knocks cancer down from its status as number-one killer of Americans under the age of 85?”
First open the envelope, extract the paper and then read, “No, I am not willing to be the president who knocks cancer down. I am for cancer. People are living too long. Elect me and I promise you a shorter, more painful life.”
Well, now we know where Mr. Williams and Mr. Russert get their questions. They get them from bicycle riders, the best known of which is a man often accused of having cheated to win his races.
Political debates are good and necessary but they should be debates, not performance opportunities for news celebrities, and there should be no questioning by anybody, whether journalists, political scientists or academics. Let there be one topic selected and one only for each debate, and rules agreed on as to how long and how often the debaters talk, with one moderator whose task it is to ensure the debate rules are followed.
The present format is a disservice to the voting public and the candidates. Enough is enough.