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This timeless press mantra has not surprisingly emerged as the fuel that drives the engine in the televised presidential debates. 

This is the conclusion of media critics, foreign policy experts and human rights advocates, who are charging that questions asked by the moderators of the televised debates among candidates for their party’s presidential nomination were trivial, designed to produce conflict to boost ratings, and ignored many of the most pressing issues facing the U.S. 

A typical critique came from Danny Schechter, editor of the Mediachannel.org, a media watchdog organization. He told us that the failings of the candidate debates “lie with the whole process which focuses on personalities, media mediated discussions, and what I call ‘electotainment’--stoking conflict--not searching for solutions. Heat, not light.” 

His view was echoed by many others who are harshly critical both of moderators for failing to ask a wide range of serious questions and of candidates for failing to raise these questions.  

During the 2008 presidential nominating process to date, some 20 debates have been televised. They have been sponsored principally by cable television news channels such as CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, and moderated by TV anchors joined by a few print journalists. When the Democratic Party chooses its candidate – the Republicans have already chosen Senator John McCain of Arizona – the two contenders traditionally participate in at least a few televised debates, as do their running mates for Vice President. 

While important subjects were discussed in the nomination debates – health care, world trade, the economy, education, terrorism  – a wide range of other areas were largely ignored. The questions never or rarely raised by primary contest debate moderators include such issues as presidential signing statements, the limits of presidential authority, separation of powers, the role of the courts, warrantless wiretapping, rendition, Guantanamo and Military Commissions, secret CIA prisons, and many other civil liberties and human rights issues.  

Mary Shaw of Amnesty International USA told us, “It is very important that the candidates honestly share their views and intentions regarding these issues.  Debate moderators need to ask these questions, but the candidates themselves should proactively address these issues as well.  We were blindly led into a war in Iraq.  We cannot afford to be blindly led into further atrocities in our name and with our tax dollars.” 

A similar view was expressed by Patricia H. Kushlis, who spent more than 25 years as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer and now co-hosts the widely respected foreign affairs blog “WhirledView.com”. She told us that the issues not addressed “are crucial to the survival of American democracy. “ She said, “If, in the televised debates, the presidential candidates are being let off the hook on these and other crucial national issues, then the fault, in my view, lies foremost with the media representatives and organizations conducting and televising the debates.  This means, in particular, with the formats chosen, the questions asked, and the ways those questions are framed.” 

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Many of those we contacted similarly blame the media more than the candidates. Patricia Sharpe, an international affairs specialist in politics, public diplomacy and national security and another co-host of  “WhirledView”, told us, “I can understand why the candidates might not originate such discussions: They are complex and controversial.  What's not easy to understand is why the issues haven't been forced on the candidates by the interlocutors.” 

Media Channel’s Schechter agrees. He told us, “TV news just loves covering campaigns. They love to play up any scandals and negatives to throw at the candidates. The more intense the debate the better for ratings. Heat is always a bigger draw than light. Elecotainment rules again.” 

For some critics, there is more than enough blame to go round. Brian J. Foley, visiting associate professor at the Drexel University College of Law, told us, “I blame the commentators, but more I blame the candidates themselves. Why are they running for President if not to right these grievous wrongs, the misdeeds and modus operandi of an abusive president?” 

A number of academics also have also been critical of the debates. For example, Edward S. Herman, an emeritus professor at the University Pennsylvania, told us, “In a real democracy substantive issues should be central to election debates, as knowing what candidates stand for on such issues ought to be the key basis on which voters choose. This is especially the case today in an election that follows an administration that has run roughshod over constitutional principles, the famous checks-and-balances system, and the rule of law itself.  If these matters, including the use of signing statements that implicitly ignore the legislative will, and the right to engage in torture and hold anybody in prison on executive say-so as an ‘enemy combatant,’ cannot be debated, we are in real trouble. And we are.” 

In his column, "Media Matters", Jamison Foser, a longtime commentator on the news business, wrote that “only a small handful of questions have touched on the candidates' views on executive power, the Constitution, torture, wiretapping, or other civil liberties concerns.” 

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He added that there was only one question about wiretapping, no questions about  FISA (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), no questions about rendition, habeas corpus, telecom liability, or the Bush administration's “rather skeptical view of congressional oversight.” 

Instead, he says, most of the questions have trivialized the process. He cites examples such as whether the Constitution should be changed to allow Arnold Schwarzenegger (the Austrian-born governor of California) to be president, what costumes the candidates would be wearing for Halloween, and whether former Democratic candidate Congressman Dennis Kucinich had seen a UFO (Unidentified Flying Object). 

Foser says, “It's easy to imagine one excuse some journalists will offer for ignoring these matters: The American people just don't care about habeas corpus and wiretapping. They care about ‘likeability’ and whether they'd enjoy having a candidate ‘in their living room’ for the next four years and whether candidates are ‘comfortable in their own skin’. They just don't care about things like the Constitution. That's bunk. Pure bunk, as recent polls demonstrate.” 

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William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and elsewhere for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration and now (more...)

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