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Why Televised Debates are Risky Business

Presidential Debate Lecture Series presenter Alan Schroeder on the trepidation and resentment that candidates bring into the debate hall.

Campus News  |  Sep 23, 2016  |  By UNLV News Center
Editor's Note: 

As part of the Presidential Debate Lecture Series, Alan Schroeder, a professor in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, will present "Why Candidates Fear Presidential Debates" at 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., Sept. 27, 2016, in Greenspun Hall. Schroeder is the author of Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail (Columbia University Press, 2016). Here he offers a preview of issues he'll discuss during the free, public lecture.

Presidential debates can be perilous for the men and women who star in them — that’s why I subtitled my book “Risky Business on the Campaign Trail.” At no other point during our extended, highly choreographed presidential campaigns do the candidates step into a situation over which they exert so little control. Unlike their usual activities – rallies, speeches, interviews, news conferences — debates require a leap into the unknown. No wonder so many politicians resent having to do them.

Before I entered the teaching profession, I spent ten years as a TV producer at local stations around the country. For most of that time, I worked on programs that aired live; those years taught me that live television is not for the faint of heart. Things can and do go wrong, which means you either roll with the punches or give up and find a less combustible career.

My experience as a live producer forced me to deal with all manner of indignities: the backstage death of a guest just minutes before air, an on-camera brawl that broke out among members of the studio audience, a movie star who showed up drunk for her interview – such surprises popped up with frightening regularity. Working in live TV, even when things are going well, you operate on the assumption that at any second disaster could strike.

Presidential debates are the quintessential example of live TV programming, packed with big names, high stakes, intense competition, and historic significance. Debates draw enormous viewership — these are the largest audiences the candidates will face in their entire careers. Walter Mondale admitted that he felt butterflies taking what he called “the longest walk”: those nerve-wracking moments in which each debater emerges from backstage to assume his position at the lectern. Even for politicians who regularly ply their trade in front of the millions, there’s nothing quite as intimidating as a presidential debate.

It’s not just the unscripted nature of debates — although that is intimidating enough — it’s also the fact that debates are the only times during the campaign when the White House contenders must stand side by side and match wits with the individuals they have spent the past year campaigning against. For candidates who normally reign as the center of their own solar systems, the idea of having to share the spotlight with a rival now becomes an unpleasant necessity. Pre-debate rehearsal helps, but only so much. Because each candidate enters the arena with a game plan, the challenge is to promote one’s own strategy while defending against the opponent’s — easier said than done when you can never be sure what the other guy has up his sleeve.  

Beyond fretting about opponents, debaters must also be on guard against unforced visual errors — things like sweating profusely, sighing in exasperation, or drinking too much water. Now, with social media turning America into a nation of pundits, any such pictorial gaffes become all the more magnified.

These are the worries that keep political pros from growing complacent when it comes time to debate. After fifty-plus years of presidential debates, the public understands that live television has a mind of its own, a penchant for the unexpected plot twist. For the candidates onstage, this makes debates a risky business indeed.

About the Author

Alan SchroederAlan Schroeder is a professor in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, where he teaches primarily in the area of visual journalism. Schroeder is the author of several books: Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail (Columbia University Press, 2016), now in its third edition; Celebrity-in-Chief: How Show Business Took Over the White House (Westview Press, 2004); and a textbook, Writing and Producing Television News: From Newsroom to Air (Oxford University Press, 2008). In 2012 he was named among “The Best 300 Professors” in the United States by the Princeton Review.

Schroeder has lectured about the global phenomenon of televised debates in Spain, the Philippines, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Ireland, Mexico, Colombia, and Peru, and has testified before the British Parliament about debate structure and sponsorship. Schroeder’s pre-academic career included stints as a journalist, television producer, and diplomat.