Stoffa: ‘The Newsroom’ offers greatest idea for debates that will never happen

Gabriel Stoffa

It isn’t often a TV show brings up a doable idea that would really make a difference in the real world, but sometimes it happens.

Aaron Sorkin‘s new drama on HBO, “The Newsroom,” had such a moment Sunday in episode 9 of season 1.

For roughly 10 minutes, from 36 minutes in to 45 minutes in, the show presented the setup for a debate forum for presidential primaries/elections that would actually demonstrate the talents of a politician.

In the show, a group of educated workers in the newsroom spent a couple months of extra work time studying all of the answers and history of each of the potential candidates in the Republican Primaries and created a mock debate to practice candidate responses, and then counters for the debate moderator.

The purpose of all the effort was to be able to cut through the song and dance candidates give: from claiming to have never agreed with something, to avoiding answering the question, to making up statements that have nice crowd appeal but no content or helpful solutions or answers.

The debates that have occurred in real life during the recent Republican Presidential Primaries are fine examples of exactly what the show is saying is terrible. Many of the questions lobbed are softballs and home runs.

The only time the candidates are in peril of sounding uninformed or as if they are participating in obfuscation is when they screw up themselves and forget their readily rehearsed array of responses. Think of Rick Perry and his inability to remember the three government agencies he would cut as laid out in his presidential platform during the Nov. 9, 2011, debate on CNBC in Michigan.

Imagine if instead of the obvious questions left open, the candidates were hit with a focused question. If they started to deny it or move away, the moderator was well-versed enough in those planned responses that he could cite instances where the candidate had said differently and steer the question back on topic.

Imagine going a step further, and if the host could focus on the candidate until the question was answered directly, or the candidate just went silent due to lack of an answer or lack of desire to answer any further.

And in this ideal world, imagine that moderators of debates were known to be journalists that would challenge each and every candidate without worry of bias toward the one they might be buddies with; you know, what journalism is supposed to be.

Unlike most TV programs where the protagonists succeed with the plan and the audience feels warm and fuzzy inside, in the “Newsroom” the plan for these more open-to-honest-responses debates did not come to fruition. The political representatives that schedule debates turned it down and offered the debate to someone willing to play by the softball/home run rules.

And that is how it would play out in real life.

No candidate wants to be torn down by mistakes they have made or sound unprepared for every little detail that would come their way. That would make it seem as if some of the bastards running weren’t qualified to do the job. Americans might be able to figure out that some of those candidates wouldn’t represent U.S. citizens’ interests in the best light.

Though it would make candidates into accurate representations of the people, in that many people also don’t understand what is going on or how to fix the problems.

The reason debates don’t play out ideally isn’t just because no group of candidates would agree to such an open-trial event, but because less people than do already watch debates would likely watch these trial-like debates.

It would have few if any entertaining moments where the candidates are seen smiling or telling the audience “fun facts” about their lives. Such as the Republican debate June 13, 2011, on CNN — which “The Newsroom” episode shows in the background — where Michele Bachmann was asked by moderator John King the “This or That” question: “Elvis or Johnny Cash?” and Bachmann answered with both, but Elvis’ Christmas music was on her iPod.

That “fun” answer is a softball turned to home run, because it allows the candidate to say they are Christian and enjoy Christmas, very positive in the United States; demonstrate like for two musicians adored across the country, which makes them seem “real”; and express they are like everyone else and use popular products in their down-to-Earth lives.

Questions like that have no place in a moderated debate. They are there to upsell the candidates. Debates aren’t supposed to make people like the candidates more by the candidates telling a little bit about themselves and how they should be voted for. Debates are a forum in which political gladiators try to take down one another in order to be the “most fit” contender to take on the champion.

This forum would be beneficial to all parties involved. It would show some candidates to be generally a waste, benefiting the one side. While for the other side, it would sift the less able candidates out, leaving the strongest and most capable of winning more time to prepare for the final showdown with the sitting champ. Best of all, it benefits the people at home that get to vote. Those people would now actually learn a little bit and be regarded as informed voters.

But again, this is all only dreams. Change like that won’t happen until the general population begins to pay attention to politics on their own, and that isn’t easy. It isn’t as if the information isn’t already available, but you have to know what you are searching for.

Journalists regularly write about these contradictions but people often skim or glance over while moving on to the headlines or sound bytes about a drunk celebrity trying to buy cigarettes while naked and then being found by a crashed car on the highway or the sort of politically important comments by a moronic politician claiming women’s bodies can block unwanted pregnancies during rape.

My plea then is for people to give up that stigma about politics not being allowed in polite conversation. Give up the laziness in not learning more about issues and candidates’ history to instead watch reality TV. Give up the dislike of politics in general.

Because politics define how you can live your life, and those politicians trying to win your vote need to be the best possible choice for the most possible good the citizens of the United States deserve.