The 2012 American presidential debates begin Wednesday night at 9pm EST at the University of Colorado. The first debate will run for 90 minutes and cover only one broad topic, "Domestic Policy." The moderator for the first debate will be none other than, the longtime PBS NewsHour correspondent.
In light of the imminent approach of the primary debates, the National Communication Association hosted an expert panel at the Knight Studio Newseum. The panel's stated focus was on "going beyond winning and losing," that is, critically examing a number of aspects related to the upcoming and past debates. Gene Policinski, president of the First Amendment Center, moderated the discussion.
Sander "Sandy" Vanucor, former NBC News White House correspondent, remarked about the change in format from the 1960 debates featuringand to the "town hall" style that has been used since 1992.
"We didn't vet questions then...I remember finding out about the debates the Friday before they happened and just showing up," he said following a black and white clip of Nixon speaking during those debates.
Panelists were also asked about image and appearance during the debates and their prevalence in the age of the 24-hour news cycle.
Charlton McIlwain, New York University Culture and Communication Professor, thinks that it plays too much of a role in the public's perception of candidates and their ability to lead.
"Maybe I'll turn the TV on and walk into the other room and just listen to what's being said," McIlwain responded.
Kathryn Olson, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Communications professor, had a slightly different view of the siutation as it pertains to the image of the president and his opponent.
"Nobody doubts Obama's likability and democratic nature; what we wonder about is his leadership ability. With Romney, there's this image of the successful businessman, with the ability to make tough choices; the impetus is then on his ability to be democratic. With a little 'd,'" she said.
Asked about the overall purpose of the debates, panelists were more or less in agreement. The debates they say are not only, or even primarily, about winning and losing, but more about educating the public about candidates and those candidates' policies and views.
"The purpose of the debates is to learn something about the candidates that you didn't already know...The debates should be watched, together, by those who hold differing political beliefs," said Annie Groer, a Washington Post correspondent and panel guest.
J. Michael Hogan, Liberal Arts Research professor of Communication arts at Penn State, recalled a question from a colleague of his following the 1988 debates between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis.
"'Who won the debates?' a friend of mine asked. Well, I think that's a bad question. I think you should be asking, 'What did I learn from the debates?'" he said.
Written by Benjamin Burton Jr.