Adam Serwer: The most illuminating moment of the debate
Yesterday afternoon, the Commission on Presidential Debates said it would soon announce changes in the structure of the remaining debates, to “ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues.” But canceling future debates would be a mistake. They serve a purpose in American elections that nothing else does and reach citizens whom nothing else in political news can. And if 70 million people came away from the cacophony thinking that American politics is a shit show, were they wrong? Anyone who tuned in expecting a Lincoln-Douglas debate, or an elegant contest between dueling ideologies, was sure to be disappointed.
Still, most of the people watching haven’t been following the race as closely as CNN commentators or podcast hosts do, and they don’t have as committed a partisan or ideological identity. They still have space to learn something new. And when nearly every other part of the political-media complex has been optimized for polarization, debates are one of the few forces pushing in the opposite direction.
Think back to what the media universe was like before Twitter, before Fox News, before Facebook memes. The day’s political updates were funneled through just a few major news organizations: the three broadcast-TV networks, major national or regional newspapers, and wire services. Each outlet had its flaws, but each generally tried to present the latest news through a down-the-middle lens. And these outlets, especially the network-TV newscasts, reached massive audiences. If you watched television at the dinner hour, you had little choice but to watch Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, or their local equivalents.
On an average evening in 1968, the ratings company Nielsen found, 60 percent of American households had the television on. Of those, about three-quarters were watching a national network newscast. As the political scientist J. Austin Ranney put it in 1983: “When the local and national newscasts mix some political stories in with the others, as they usually do, the passive and not-very-political viewers in the inadvertent audience do not bother to switch channels … So the viewers absorb some political information even when they do not seek it.”
An example: The major networks all aired extensive coverage of the Democratic and Republican nominating conventions every four years. In 1956, those conventions were watched by an astonishing 93 percent of U.S. households with TVs, and for an average aggregate time of more than 16 hours. According to Nielsen data, 4 million homes were still watching at 2:30 a.m. on one night of the Democratic convention, as delegates debated a civil-rights plank in the party’s platform.
Those news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC—and the fact that people who wanted to watch TV had few other choices at certain hours—had an effect on the Americans who watched them. And the impact was greatest on those who were less educated and who were less interested in politics.