As Republican presidential candidates debate, audience gets nearly as much media attention as politicians

Today will bring the year’s seventh Republican Presidential debate – a Dartmouth College forum co-sponsored by Bloomberg Television and the Washington Post. And while most of the media and blogosphere will be focused on the candidates’ performances, there also likely will be unusual scrutiny on the behavior of the audience in the auditorium. In the previous three GOP debates, controversial reactions from spectators attracted almost as much attention as the politicians did:

  • During the Sept. 7 debate sponsored by MSNBC, Politico, and Reagan Library, the audience applauded the 234 executions that have taken place in Texas during Gov. Rick Perry’s administration.
  • At the Sept. 12 CNN/Tea Party Express debate, some in the crowd screamed “yes” when moderator Wolf Blitzer rhetorically asked whether “society should just let (uninsured people) die.”
  • The most talked-about audience reaction came at the Sept. 22 debate sponsored by Fox News, Google, and the Florida Republican Party. A handful of spectators booed a gay soldier who asked via YouTube from Iraq whether candidates would “circumvent the progress that's been made for gay and lesbian soldiers.” (The booing drew rebukes from President Obama, Sen. John McCain, and other political leaders.)

While the cheers and jeers have led some writers to criticize the spectators and others to defend them, the boisterous crowds are an outgrowth of a larger issue: The gradual morphing of political debates from staid policy discussions into glitzy TV extravaganzas. Increasingly, the programs are embracing a format that tolerates or even encourages animated crowds.

“It’s a combination of game show and reality television,” said Northeastern University journalism professor Alan Schroeder, the author of "Presidential Debates: 40 Years of High-Risk TV." He said the networks are adopting production values designed to increase ratings, create excitement, and attract attention.

“Anytime you have media organizations sponsoring debates, their objective is going to be something beyond voter enlightenment,” said Schroeder, a former TV producer. “In the sense of generating buzz and generating conversation after the debate, these unruly audiences have been positive for the cable networks that have sponsored them.”

A growing role for the crowd

The first modern presidential debate – the September 1960 face-off between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon – was staged in a television studio without any spectators at all.

“We didn’t need an audience,” recalled former NBC and ABC correspondent Sander Vanocur, a panelist in the 1960 event. “There was a moderator and there were the participants.”

Later, Vanocur hosted debates that included spectators, but -- as was common in that era -- he was quick to admonish them to keep quiet. When mild applause interrupted Democrat Geraldine Ferrarro’s remarks in the 1984 Vice Presidential debate, Vanocur immediately jumped in.

“I beseech you; try to hold your applause, please,” Vanocur told spectators, chiding them for showing the type of emotion more appropriate in “athletic contexts, of which this is not one.”

“I had been trained in a school of debate in college, and I just wanted to admonish the audience to stay out of the proceedings,” Vanocur said in a phone interview from his Santa Barbara home.

Vanocur said he remains an avid watcher of political debates, but his expectation of politeness seems almost quaint nowadays. While the forums leading up to the general election -- sponsored by a non-partisan commission -- still maintain the customary rules of decorum, the networks that produce pre-primary debates have dispensed with many of the formal customs and established new standards for what’s appropriate.

Debates have evolved into participatory events

The first “Town Hall” style presidential forum was held in 1992. By 2003, some of the pre-primary debates were soliciting voter questions over the Internet. YouTube questions made their debut in 2008, while networks this year are soliciting questions from Twitter.

And with each innovation that welcomes involvement from viewers, it becomes less likely that spectators in the auditorium will be willing to remain quiet.

Republican presidential candidates Texas Gov. Rick Perry, left, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, share a laugh during a Fox News/Google debate Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011, in Orlando, Fla. (Phelan M. Ebenhack, Pool/AP)

“When you invite the audience to play a part in the proceedings, it's difficult to say just ‘up to a point,’ " said Robert Schmuhl, who directs Notre Dame’s program in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. “As Jimmy Durante used to say, everybody is getting into the act, and that seems to include audiences at recent presidential candidate debates.”

Furthermore, by embracing social media, debate producers have had little choice but to accept one of the core values of Web-based communication – the idea that unrestrained speech is an almost sacred right.

“People have been encouraged by the direction the media has taken technologically to give instant, unfiltered reactions,” said Baltimore Sun television critic David Zurawik. “And what better way to do it than in a hall when you have all those cameras pointing at you.”

Partisans fill the audience

Cable TV networks tend to exercise little control over who gets tickets to the debates, deferring instead to the organizations that co-sponsor the events. As a result, most of the tickets to the September MSNBC forum were distributed by the Reagan Library to the candidates’ campaigns, which gave them to supporters. At the CNN debate, the Tea Party Express passed out tickets to members of its local chapters. The audience for the Fox News event consisted mainly of delegates to the Florida Republican Party convention, as well as a few spectators who showed up wearing Tea Party costumes.

“You get very, very partisan audiences,” Schroeder said. “Any time you’ve got a one-party debate and the members of the live audience are very partisan themselves, you’re going to increase the likelihood of an intense reaction.”

(Dartmouth College officials say students and faculty members will make up about half the audience at Tuesday's debate, with the remainder of the tickets distributed through Republican leaders and the candidates' campaigns. A Dartmouth spokesman says spectators will be briefed on "appropriate audience behavior.")

The American Idolization of politics

To varying degrees, the three September debates borrowed visual and audio techniques from entertainment and sports programs: colorful set decorations, splashy graphics, and lights and microphones aimed toward the crowd.

“When a crowd is lit, it feels like it’s part of the event,” said Janet Brown, the executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has sponsored all of the general election forums since 1988.

She noted that audience members at the Commission’s debates sit in the dark to reinforce the idea that they’re passive spectators, not participants.

On the other hand, the cable network’s pre-primary events bathe the crowd in light and feature cut-away audience reaction shots. At the beginning of the CNN/Tea Party Express debate, Blitzer announced that audience members would “play an active role,” and several times, the cameras showed spectators at what Blitzer called “watch parties” across the country.

Indeed, many critics have singled out the September CNN debate as being especially reminiscent of a reality show. The program’s opening montage referred to the candidates as “players” and assigned a catchy label to each – Mitt Romney was “the frontrunner,” Michelle Bachmann the “firebrand,” Rick Santorum “the fighter,” Newt Gingrich “the big thinker,” and so on.

“There’s a real sense of them trying to pump up these broadcasts,” Zurawik said in phone interview. “Technology has changed our involvement in the media, but cable TV stokes that to try to make its ratings larger.”

A big audience, but a risk to democracy?

And by the yardstick of ratings, the newfangled debate formats appear to be successful. The September cable TV forums each greatly exceeded its network’s typical weeknight audience. The Sept. 22 Fox News/Google debate attracted more than six million viewers – beating even some of the prime-time entertainment programs on the broadcast networks.

For that reason, observers such as Zurawik have mixed feelings about the events. Yes, they’re boisterous, sometimes ugly, and can descend to a level of triviality that even one of the candidates compared to a “Hollywood game.” But they do seem to be reaching Americans and engaging them in the political process.

“It’s not a bad thing that they try to get as large an audience as they can,” Zurawik said. “The fact that they’re getting six million viewers this far out from the election is really encouraging.”

“But if you turn it into a carnival midway kind of event, you’re harming democracy, not helping it,” he added. “You’re exploiting our process of electing a president, rather than serving it.”


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