TV Can Assist Democracy

Mar 1, 2004  •  Post A Comment

The hip East Coast retailer Urban Outfitters is offering a long-sleeve T-shirt for $28 that reads, “Voting is for old people.”
That may be someone’s idea of a joke, but it is exactly the wrong message to send. It comes at a time when apathy toward politics is already a plague in much of our society; and anything that makes it hip not to vote damages democracy.
That is why I was so heartened by the excitement among the young people attending the Democratic Presidential Primary Debate Feb. 26 in an ivy-covered brick fortress known as the George Finley Bovard Auditorium on the University of Southern California campus. The evening, co-sponsored by CNN and the Los Angeles Times, featured the Democratic candidates-Sen. John Kerry, Sen. John Edwards, the Rev. Al Sharpton and U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich- only days before the Super Tuesday primaries.
Inside, the stage of the auditorium had been transformed in four intense days by a CNN special events crew. Two desks faced each other for two journalists and four candidates, and another smaller desk was in front for moderator Larry King.
The packed auditorium included rows of celebrity faces, including former California Gov. Gray Davis, Ed Asner, Billy Baldwin and wheelchair-bound porn publisher and First Amendment battler Larry Flynt.
And then there were the students. USC had selected several dozen and the L.A. Times had brought in high school kids. From beginning to end, their energy filled the room, bringing laughter, shouts, applause, cheers and jeers worthy of a pop concert. The politicians were treated like rock stars. It was pop culture fascination multiplied by the emotional impact of being committed to a candidate for president.
There were many more students and faculty outside. Some assembled along a central walkway, which quickly became three separate cheering sections for presidential candidates. The largest bunch was for Kerry and seemed quite organized. They all wore red T-shirts and the leader led a chanting of slogans with a bullhorn. They cheered wildly whenever a news camera pointed in their direction. The next-largest group, for Kucinich, was led by a band playing steel drums. Then there was a noisy group for Edwards.
The debate format was extremely effective. Instead of having each candidate at a podium with a set amount of time to respond to questions, this group was seated together, and the interaction was lively. It was impossible for the candidates to stick to a script. The questions from the L.A. Times reporters, Larry King and the candidates themselves kept them all on their toes, and forced them to improvise.
Sen. Kerry gave a stellar performance, though the Rev. Sharpton almost stole the evening with his barbed sermonettes. Sen. Edwards held his own but didn’t hit the electronic home run he needed.
It would be great if there were more televised forums of this sort, where the candidates and press really get to mix it up. Instead, the four debates planned for the national general election (three between the Democrat and Republican presidential candidates and one for the vice presidential candidates) are likely to use the stand-up-and-spout format, which lends itself to pre-planned speeches and is more campaigning than elucidating.
After the USC debate, all the candidates but Sen. Kerry went across the way to another building designated as the “spin room.” They met briefly with a horde of electronic and print media jostling for position to capture their thoughts. When the candidates fled, the press turned to a range of political thinkers from USC profs to syndicated columnists Arianna Huffington and Richard Reeves. “Spin City” went from packed to empty in about 10 minutes.
I congratulated Sam Feist, CNN’s D.C.-based senior executive producer, political programming, for a successful event. These are never sure things. Last Sunday NBC and the League of Women Voters tried to mount a similar debate, which had to be canceled on only three days’ notice due primarily to candidate schedules.
As I left, I couldn’t help but chuckle over mostly middle-aged media members, most looking as though they were on a camping trip, mixed with the sea of casually dressed students and the suit-wearing candidates and their handlers. I marveled at how it had all come together to make perfect television, offering a true message on the medium. It was entertaining, informative and helped us better understand the candidates, which is crucial in a free society. It was a model for televised democracy I can only wish were more common.