Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Inside the Presidential Debates: Their Improbable Past and Promising Future, by Newton S. Minow and Craig L. LaMay

University of Chicago Press, ISBN 9780226530390 , September 2008

Newton Minow, who helped bring the presidential debates into existence, and then helped guide their development, wrote this history of the debates for 2008. University of Chicago Press re-released it as an ebook for the 2012 elections.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this history is how hard it was to create televised debates between the presidential candidates, precisely because of rules intended to prevent the power of the new medium being exploited for partisan advantage. We get a wonderfully interesting tale of how the first presidential debate series, between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, was brought through the tangle of regulatory and competitive obstacles, and why it didn't happen again for well over a decade. Even with regulatory issues resolved, and both major party candidates in theory willing to do debates, there are still endless problems that need to be resolved anew every single time: number of debates, format(s) of debates, whether third party candidates will be included (and which ones.)

Minow, former Chairman of the FCC, was deeply involved in organizing the debates for most of their history, and as of the writing of this book was still involved as consultant and advisor. He has a lot to say about what makes the debates more or less useful to the voters, advocating more questions from voters rather than journalists, and from the candidates to each other. I don't agree with everything he has to say, and  there are times where I think he falls into the trap of being uncritical of some of his own choices and decisions over the years. Nevertheless, no one has more knowledge or has done more thinking about the process of presidential debates, and their role in a healthy, functioning democracy.

Highly recommended.

I received this ebook free of charge from the publisher.