(By Richard Davies) Welcome to the Presidential debate season. This evening, tomorrow, and then over 16 long months, several dozen proposed debates will occupy much of the news media’s fevered attention.
Millions of us will tune in, but we may well be disappointed.
Instead of informed, insightful coverage of complex issues and the character of the candidates, the debates will reinforce saturation coverage of contests, celebrities, and clashes. Sparks may fly, but don’t expect true illumination. Reporting and analysis will be limited to what were the most catchiest soundbites, who screwed up, and which of 20 Democratic candidates actually stood out.
“After a couple of hours, viewers and journalists can usually only remember a couple of genuinely interesting, unexpected interactions,” wrote data analyst David Byler in The Washington Post. These moments often get lost and fail to really change public opinion.”
Despite the political theater of the debates, don’t expect them to tell us much about the men and women who want to be President.
Voters deserve better than this.
For deeper insights, podcasts may be a much better way to learn about their proposals, intellectual rigor, and ability to articulate how they would navigate the many huge challenges that will be faced in the White House.
Some campaigns get it. According to the political newspaper and website CQ Roll Call, candidate Pete Buttigieg has already appeared on more that 30 podcasts. Additional appearances are expected.
Politico reports that at least a dozen 2020 contenders have appeared on Pod Save America, a popular podcast for Democratic voters and political junkies.
“One thing that’s great about podcasts is that it allows for more in-depth conversation,” says Buttigieg communications advisor Lis Smith. “You feel like you’re friends with these guys, you feel like you know them,” Smith told Roll Call about podcast hosts. “You trust their judgement, you adopt their lingo… I don’t remember feeling that way about a TV host or a radio host.”
Elizabeth Warren was interviewed for more than an hour on The Axe Files, the podcast hosted by former Obama senior political advisor David Axelrod. With podcasts, “I explore people’s stories and try to convey to the listener who it is I’m talking to,” he said.
During the two-hour TV debates the candidates may say a few worthwhile things.
But because so many Presidential hopefuls will be on the stage, they will only get about nine minutes each to speak. And “a certain amount of that is going to involve answering the inane questions that the moderators inevitably pose,” writes columnist Paul Waldman.
By contrast, podcasts allow us to go much deeper, exploring who the candidates really are and what are the principles that they stand for. Despite the risks of flubbing the answer to a surprising or insightful question, serious campaigns should jump at the chance to be taken seriously by podcasters.