Generating Headlines, Likes and Reposts: What’s Wrong with Presidential Debates

Generating Headlines, Likes and Reposts: What’s Wrong with Presidential Debates

Watching much of the CNN/Facebook Democratic Presidential Debate last night, I was reminded again of how very misguided this aspect of our presidential selection process is.

The sponsors of the debate tell us more than we may wish to know about what is important in a presidential candidate “debate.”

CNN originally built its market share on the strength of Headline News. In other words, CNN built a market niche out of a half-hour newscast run repeatedly through the day. Every hour, twice an hour, CNN ran miniaturized versions of the “big” stories in domestic and international politics and government, economics, health, science, sports, celebrities, Hollywood and whatever else might catch and briefly hold an audiences’ attention.

To feed that voracious media beast, they needed headlines. Not depth, not complexity.

Of course, CNN has moved well beyond this mindset. But the love of the headline and the short, dramatic story is, I think, baked into its DNA. (They still have their iconic Headline News channel, after all.)

Why else would Anderson Cooper begin the conversation last night by putting each candidate on the spot with some question about what everyone else says is his or her biggest vulnerability? Why else frame the discussion of the tension between national security intelligence gathering and civil liberties in the form of the question, “Edward Snowden, hero or traitor?”

Then there’s Facebook.

I’m on Facebook, both professionally and personally. I don’t post a lot; mostly I look and read. And mostly what I read is what my family and friends post about their life experiences.

But when I read the political discussions, whether from what is trending or something one of my “friends” started, I quickly tire of the conversation. I tire because, as I assume others will agree, it isn’t a conversation. It’s a series of one-shots (in most cases), sometimes with responses from the original poster. If it’s not a series of one-shots, it typically seems to be more about the gotcha line than the deeper grasp of an issue or even of people’s feelings about an issue.

Because Facebook is designed around the quick post and the rapid scanning of our newsfeed, it simply isn’t an environment for thoughtful discussion.

Besides . . . the measure of success on Facebook is the number of “likes” or “re-posts.” Complex, thoughtful comments are much less likely to get either (because they are too long and/or too thought-provoking) than the quick, witty or sarcastic jab.

So Facebook will be interested in what people can post that will stir a reaction. That means a candidate’s clever parry of an attack or a difficult question more than thoughtful analysis and a snarky comeback more than a careful rebuttal.

None of this has anything to do with governing, or building coalitions across disparate perspectives, or even going toe-to-toe with Russia or China or Iran or ISIS.

It doesn’t even have much to do with character, a frequent and legitimate concern of voters as well as pundits.

But as long as the media control the process, that’s all we’re likely to get.