Don't Blame Gwen Ifill if the vice-presidential debate sucks.

Media criticism.
Oct. 1 2008 5:19 PM

Don't Blame Gwen Ifill If the Veep Debate Sucks

What a stupid format.

Gwen Ifill. Click image to expand.
Gwen Ifill

A 90-minute televised window through which we've been invited to compare the political stands, leadership abilities, and temperaments of vice-presidential candidates Sarah Palin and Joe Biden is about to open.

The organizer of the Oct. 2 face-off at Washington University is calling the event a "debate." But like the McCain vs. Obama session that preceded it—overseen by the same outfit—the Washington University matchup will demand less from the veep candidates than a five-minute appearance on Meet the Press. The rules governing its operation all but guarantee it. So if the debate ends up revealing less about Palin's and Biden's positions than can be found on a bumper sticker, if either candidate escapes tough questions and seeks refuge in homey anecdotes, if the debaters stop talking scant seconds after they start, don't blame moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS. Blame the format.

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Negotiations between the McCain and Obama campaigns resulted in a 90-minute format that calls for the two candidates to stand at podiums and field questions in turn from moderator Ifill. Answers may not exceed 90 seconds, and two minutes of open discussion will follow each question. Each candidate will give a 90-second closing statement.

According to the New York Times, the McCain campaign pushed for this arrangement, which is more restrictive than the two-minute-response, five-minutes-of-open-discussion format of the first McCain-Obama debate, because the looser "format could leave Ms. Palin, a relatively inexperienced debater, at a disadvantage and largely on the defensive."

How much can a candidate say in 90 seconds? Depending on his or her mouth speed, somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 to 300 words. During the 2004 vice-presidential debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards, the candidates were allowed 120 seconds per question, and they rarely spoke more than 400 words. (The rules that year allowed for 90-second rebuttals and discussion-extension intervals at the moderator's discretion.) To give you a sense of the brevity of 400 words, this article is just passing the 300-word mark.

Whether you give a candidate 90 or 120 seconds to speak, abbreviated formats leave the weakest ones plenty of room to hide. Because no rule forces the candidate to burn all of the allotted time answering the question, he can evade complexity and nuance by giving a rehearsed 30-second sound bite, especially if there is no provision for a follow-up question—which there usually isn't. And as we observed in the Sept. 26 McCain-Obama debate, the referee can't force the combatants into an "open discussion" if they choose not to punch: "I'm just determined to get you all to talk to each other," frustrated moderator Jim Lehrer said early in that debate.

The veep format at Washington University favors Palin, if Andrew Halcro is any guide to her debate techniques. Halcro repeatedly debated Sarah Palin in their contest for the job of Alaska governor in 2006. He writes in today's Christian Science Monitor that Palin was the "master of the nonanswer" in debates. He continues: "During the campaign, Palin's knowledge on public policy issues never matured—because it didn't have to. Her ability to fill the debate halls with her presence and her gift of the glittering generality made it possible for her to rely on populism instead of policy."

We all have estimates about how long Sarah Palin could speak about nuclear proliferation, health care, immigration, the Wall Street bailout, the Iraq war, or the Kyoto Treaty without resorting to homilies and canned phrases. But force Joe Biden to go long on any one of those topics and who knows what sort of trouble his motormouth would get him into? Biden usually requires 90 seconds just to warm up and lubricate his vocal cords, after which he reliably barks some ridiculous gaffe. The 90-second maximum protects both veep candidates from their weaknesses.

The Cheney-Edwards debate from 2004, also moderated by Ifill, provides a preview of how inconsequential these bouts can be. Approaching the transcript, I expected a bloody prizefight between two heavyweights. Instead, I found two bantams on their bicycles, backpedaling. Ifill asked each candidate only 10 questions, with most of the 90-minute session given over to tedious rebuttals and responses. The day after the Cheney-Edwards debate, the Washington Post concluded that "the format was calculated to keep the fireworks subdued" and that the calculation had paid off.

WorldNetDaily suggests this week that Ifill's forthcoming book, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, may compromise her performance as moderator because the book's success depends on the success of the Obama campaign. (See also Michelle Malkin and Tim Graham at the Media Research Center.) Might Ifill take a dive for Joe Biden before an audience of tens of millions in hopes of increasing sales of a book scheduled for release in January? That doesn't square with common sense, nor does it square with what I know about Ifill's work. If you're interested in her thoroughness and fairness as a moderator and have caffeine enough to read the entire Cheney-Edwards debate transcript, do so. You'll see that she conducted herself in a completely professional—and boring—manner.

Instead of knocking moderators, let's knock the format, which the campaigns ultimately control. Back in the early 1990s, Walter Goodman of the New York Times called for a debate template that forced candidates "accustomed to delivering bromides on the stump and toying with interviewers" to actually grapple with issues. Forget about time limits, Goodman counseled, writing:

When the usual slogans start popping out, leave it to the moderator to remind the candidate what the question is, and to press for a straight answer.

The candidates could also be compelled to confront each other, give and take, no place to hide. Instead of the charges and insinuations that float through their commercials, there could be rebuttals and counter rebuttals. A tough, fair reporter—and specimens are available on all the networks—can abet that healthy process, too.

Who could oppose Marquis of Queensberry-style rules governing 90-minute championship bouts between the candidates? Surely not WorldNetDaily, Michelle Malkin, or Tim Graham. The only candidate afraid of showing what they've got is the candidate who's got nothing to show.

*******

No discussion of Gwen Ifill is complete without mentioning the laden-with-innuendo 245-word piece that she co-bylined with Maralee Schwartz and the late Ann Devroy for the Jan. 10, 1989, Washington Post about Jennifer Fitzgerald. Many had gossiped in the absence of proof that President George H.W. Bush had had an affair with Fitzgerald, so the politically connected knew exactly what Ifill, Schwartz, and Devroy had on their minds when they wrote this in their lede:

Jennifer Fitzgerald, who has served President-elect George Bush in a variety of positions, most recently running the vice presidential Senate offices, is expected to be named deputy chief of protocol in the new administration, sources said yesterday.

Send similarly scurrilous ledes to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. And remind me to revisit Ifill's book when it comes out in January. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word debate in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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