Presidential debate: "Town Hall" this ain't
Notes and commentary by: Forrest Carr, KGUN9 News Director
The debate taking place tonight (Tuesday, October 16) between President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney has been widely described as having a "Town Hall" format. Those are the words the Commission on Presidential Debates used in the memorandum of understanding signed by the two candidates.
The trouble is, it's no such thing.
The term "town hall" has been used since well before the founding of our country to describe a type of citizen participation in democracy. The basic idea is that citizens would gather in some kind of assembly, often legislative in nature, participate in a give and take, and perhaps make decisions about town affairs.
The rules for tonight's debate describe nothing like that. Instead of a free and open participation in the democratic process, rules place strict limits on what audience members can say and do.
The memorandum of understanding makes that very clear. Without any hint of irony, the document states an intent to stick to a "traditional town hall format," and then goes on to rule out such tradition, stating, "There shall be no audience participation... other than as described below."
First, the rules restrict who can speak. All questions must be submitted to the moderator in advance, who will pre-screen them, chosing the topics she wants and rejecting any questions she judges to be "inappropriate." Then, any person picked to ask an approved question must stick strictly to the pre-approved words that he or she submitted. If not, the moderator is to cut off the questioner, and then remind the audience that "non-reviewed questions are not permitted." After the audience member asks his or her question, that person's participation has ended, and the questioner's microphone is to be cut off.
In other words, aside from some members being selected to ask a single question approved by someone else, the role of the audience is to sit there and keep quiet.
Of course, there is no practical way to forbid audience members from reacting silently to the candidates' answers by way of facial expressions, gestures or other form of body language. But the rules can, and do, prevent the home audience from ever knowing about such reactions. The event is so tightly controlled that "reaction shots," as we say in the business, are not permitted. The rules state that "in no case shall any television shots be taken of any member of the audience (including candidates' family members) from the time the first question is asked until the conclusion of the closing statements...."
The rules also sharply restrict the moderator herself, banning her from asking any follow-up questions that she might care to pose.
There is a catch, however. The memorandum only binds the debate commission and the two campaigns. The moderator is not a party to the agreement. The memo only says that the commission will use its best efforts to enforce the agreement.
And that, of course, means that it remains to be seen whether the moderator and production crew will strictly follow those rules. This same memorandum also bans cut-away shots of candidates who aren't speaking -- which should have precluded the use of those split-screen shots we've been seeing. The moderator, CNN's Candy Crowley, has already stated that despite the rules, she will feel free to chime in from time to time, which reportedly is causing both campaigns a degree of heartburn.
Bottom line: The words "town hall" imply that voters will get a fair crack at the candidates. If the rules are followed -- in other words, if the candidates get their way -- that isn't precisely what will take place tonight. Viewers should keep these restrictions in mind as they watch what unfolds.
The debate will be seen tonight at 6:00 PM Tucson time on KGUN9-TV. At 10:00 PM, watch for follow-up coverage as KGUN9 news samples local reaction to the event.