Tuesday’s “town hall” debate roused the passion of both Democrats and Republicans, because it combined two entertainment forms that most Americans understand and enjoy far more than politics: sports and reality TV.
The N.Y. Post headline, “Mitt, Bam go blow to blow,” was indistinguishable from how the tabloid would cover a boxing match. On Fox News Channel, the conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer said it was enjoyable because the candidates looked like gladiators in a ring, swinging away at each other. In The Washington Post, liberal columnist Eugene Robinson said Obama “punched hard.”
And those “real people” asking the questions? They were chosen, choreographed and rehearsed with the same degree of faux reality that you get on a show like “Survivor.”
The pool of 82 citizens selected by the Gallup Organization was not really typical of anything other than what organizers believed would make the best television show. These weren’t average folks, after all, they were self-defined “undecideds,” who actually comprise a tiny percentage of voters. Eleven of them made it on air, having been hand picked by the moderator, Candy Crowley, in a delicate balancing act of male and female, young and old — with care taken to include one African American and one Latino.
Crowley, by the way, did an excellent job. But those asking the questions were merely theatrical props. Not only were they coached by Crowley before the event, their microphones were cut immediately after they asked their questions, to guarantee they could neither comment further nor attempt to follow up.
The thing about today’s reality TV is that the stakes are too high to let it be completely real. Stage-crafted the way it was Tuesday, it was great television, and over 65 million people tuned in. Viewers have repeatedly said in surveys that they favor the town hall format, even though most journalists have criticized it over the years.
This time around, even news people softened a bit and praised the show. But what were they really praising? The realness? Or the fact that Crowley and the Commission on Presidential Debates did all they could to suck most of the reality out of it?
With tens of thousands of questions submitted online, and more than a hundred turned in by the folks on stage, Crowley was able to guide the event exactly as she felt was journalistically appropriate and could plug in pretty much any question she wanted. There weren’t going to be slips like in 2004 when the first question of the night, unfiltered, challenged Sen. John Kerry to explain why he seemed “wishy-washy.” Reality works best on television when it’s not too real.
Sticking with sports jargon, many are calling Monday night’s final debate a “tie-breaker.” Romney won round one, Obama won round two, and in Boca Raton, Fla., they’ll compete for the title.
Monday’s finale will focus on foreign affairs, with CBS veteran Bob Schieffer, 75, as moderator. How will Schieffer play it? Will he be like the slick-fielding Crowley? Will he use an aggressive game plan like eager rookie Martha Raddatz employed in the vice presidential debate? Or, will Schieffer play it safe the way Jim Lehrer did in round one — making Lehrer seem more like a replacement ref?
And what about those town hall questioners? Will any of them write a book or turn up on “Today” or “Good Morning, America”?
The only thing certain in American sports, reality TV and politics is that the losers often insist that the game was rigged.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker and can be reached at www.CandidCamera.com
©2012 Peter Funt. Columns distributed exclusively by: Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate. For more info contact Cari Dawson Bartley. Email Cari@cagle.com, (800) 696-7561