October 22, 1984 12:00 PM


In Showtime’s political spoof, Washingtoon, two candidates, Bob Forehead and Paul Crumbs, debate. Forehead: “I would never vote to cut Social Security.” Crumbs: “I would never, ever vote to cut Social Security.” Forehead: “I would never, ever, ever vote to cut Social Security.” Crumbs: “I would kill myself rather than vote to cut Social Security.” Forehead: “I would kill myself and I would kill my entire family rather than vote to cut Social Security.”

Sounds like the first Reagan-Mondale debate. Theirs was not a debate but a Battle of the Network Stars, or a stringing together of political commercials: It was a piece of performance, not a work of substance. Such video debates simply don’t work. They are not a proper use of TV in elections. Why not instead:

•Either do without a live audience or perhaps let the audience participate, as it did in the Democrats’ New Hampshire debate, a lively affair that gave a clearer indication of what the candidates stood for and how they thought. In the Reagan-Mondale debate, the audience was there only to react to guaranteed applause lines on God, Ike and Social Security. The real audience was you, in front of the TV at home.

•Let the candidates be challenged—even interrupted—by each other or by reporters to cut through the reams of rhetoric. Neither man is the Pope or the Dalai Lama; each is just a politician who deserves tough questioning. Or…

•Encourage network news organizations to run weekly specials—half of 60 Minutes, say—on one issue apiece, interviewing the candidates and investigating their stands and the facts of the matter on the deficit, taxes, defense, foreign policy, education, civil rights and so on. A newspaper or magazine story will give you that perspective; a TV debate such as this—even with the commentators’ postgame scoring—cannot. The networks may whine about ratings, but it’s hard to believe that no one would watch a good, tough report on what will happen to schools or Social Security or taxes. Besides, the networks already are devoting about six hours to these debates, when half a dozen well-produced, journalistic reports would do more to inform the voters. If TV cannot do that in a democracy, then it should not even try.

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