Expect more artifice than authenticity in 'town hall' debate

"Town halls" today have almost nothing to do with the real meaning of the term.

Sunday night, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will square off in what's being billed as a "town hall debate."

The term conjures up images of brightly lit New England assembly halls and the Norman Rockwell "Freedom of Speech" illustration that shows a young man straight out of Frank Capra central casting standing tall to address a group of fellow citizens. It's synonymous with democracy and grass-roots government in our shared memory.

Don't be fooled. TV town halls today have almost nothing to do with the real meaning of the term. Instead, they have become another instance of TV taking a staple of American life and shaping it to fit its commercial imperatives while trying to create the appearance that the institution is still doing the righteous, public-minded work it was originally intended to do.

I probably wouldn't be thinking such dark thoughts about town halls had I not seen one Tuesday that was staged in Pennsylvania by Hillary Clinton's campaign. The highlight of the event, titled "A Family Town Hall," was a question asked from the audience by 15-year-old Brennan Leach.

"At my school, body image is a really big issue for girls my age," the teenager said, reading from a piece of paper. "I see with my own eyes the damage Donald Trump does when he talks about women and how they look. As the first female president, how would you undo some of that damage and help girls understand that they are so much more than what they look like?"

I was initially struck by the way the words "I see with my own eyes the damage Donald Trump does" perfectly synched up with a Team Clinton attack ad that features girls watching TV images of Trump saying deplorable things about women. The more I thought about Leach reading that question off a piece of paper, the more I started to wonder whether what I saw was an authentic moment of citizen-candidate dialogue or a scripted piece of political theater.

I wasn't alone. Even though most of the major newspapers and TV outlets on-scene took the moment at face value without any questions asked, social media lit up with another narrative of what took place. A YouTube video headlined "Hillary's Townhall in Haverford PA Where She Stages Question with Child Actor" was up to 146,000 views within 24 hours of being posted and Reddit was rocking with discussion about it.

Near the end of its story, The New York Times did raise the issue of the question's authenticity: "After the event, Brennan said that her father, a state senator, had helped her form the question that had so excited Mrs. Clinton. (The Clinton campaign said questions had not been vetted.)" The Times left it there.

But Spanglevision, the producer of the YouTube video, and various Reddit and YouTube commenters found the 15-year-old's online resume listing her training as an actor and roles she's had in commercials and film. One set of her credits comes from appearing in campaign ads for her father, Pennsylvania State Sen. Daylin Leach, a Democrat who is labeled "The Liberal Lion of Pennsylvania" in one campaign ad. Video of Bill Clinton is used prominently in another Daylin Leach campaign ad with Brennan Leach calling the former president a "great man."

Clearly, Tuesday's town hall was not the teen actor's first exposure to politics, cameras and the Clintons.

It's inevitable that town halls would be changed once they moved through the belly of the TV beast — whether they are produced by a TV network for its viewers or a candidate's campaign for video and TV consumption. Television has changed virtually every major institution it has touched in its half-century at the heart of American life. College sports, Congress, the courts and the presidency — to name just a few of the institutions it has affected mostly for the worse.

In his landmark book "Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works" (University of Chicago, 2003), Frank M. Bryan described town halls as citizens from a locality coming together on a yearly basis in face-to-face gatherings to debate a set of issues that directly affect their lives and then voting on them.

But there is rarely any debate or opportunity for discussion among the audience in a TV town hall — let alone any voting that affects participants' lives directly or indirectly. The folks in the seats are mainly props, part of the set dressing for the candidates, moderators and the spectacle that the networks and cable channels are selling to advertisers on their pre- and post-debate coverage.

Andrew H. Miller, a retired Army captain, expressed his displeasure in an op-ed essay for The New York Times at the way he and other veterans were treated as audience members on NBC's recent "Commander-in-Chief Forum" with Clinton, Trump and moderator Matt Lauer.

"Veterans were corralled by NBC staff members to fill seats and instructed to 'observe military decorum,'" he wrote. "We were told variously to sit here or walk there to fill background shots. Our bodies contributed more than our voices."

It wasn't always that way with the town hall, which has been a staple since the earliest days of broadcasting.

NBC radio introduced "America's Town Hall Meeting on the Air" in 1935. It opened with a town crier ringing a bell to call the meeting to order. It ran for 21 years, with such show topics as "Are Schools Doing Their Jobs?" and "What's Wrong with American Marriages?"

Unlike the town hall TV shows of today, where flashing signs tell audience members to applaud or remain silent, this show encouraged them to boo, hiss, heckle or applaud what was being said. But there is always more freedom and experimentation in the earlier days of a medium — especially when there is less money at stake, as was the case with public-affairs radio.

In 1968, Richard Nixon's team used a variation of the town hall for some of its campaign TV ads. They were called "Man in the Arena," and they featured Nixon answering tightly scripted questions amid a group of carefully selected "citizen-voters." Roger Ailes, the recently deposed Fox News CEO who is now advising Trump on debate prep, was one of the producers of those ads.

Town halls did not really become part of political TV fabric until the 1990s, when Bill Clinton's team started using them in the 1992 campaign because the candidate was so good at seeming to connect with participants — especially when they spoke about hardship or pain. That Team Clinton staged its own town halls and participated in others produced by cable channels — like MTV.

That was also the first year that the town hall format was used for a presidential debate. Going up against Republican President George H.W. Bush and independent H. Ross Perot, Clinton was the clear winner. As Clinton walked toward and effectively engaged audience members who asked questions, Bush was caught by the camera at one very bad moment looking at his watch while an audience member asked a question.

The Commission on Presidential Debates has certainly made an effort to cast Sunday's event as more democratic.

According to the commission, "Half of the questions will be posed directly by citizen participants" chosen by the Gallup organization.

The other half will be posed by the moderators "based on topics of broad public interest as reflected in social media and other sources," according to the commission.

While that sounds like a less top-down structure, the moderators and their networks, CNN's Anderson Cooper and ABC's Martha Raddatz, have agreed only to "consider" the top 30 questions submitted via social media; they have not committed to asking any of them.

I am looking forward to seeing Trump and Clinton in this format. But I am not letting TV fool me about what I am going to see.

Sunday's TV debate has as much to do with truth, democracy and the original intent of the New England town meeting as an episode of "WWE Raw." Maybe less. Maybe a lot less.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

On TV

The debate will air live at 9 p.m. Sunday on many broadcast and cable networks, including ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, PBS, C-SPAN, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, Telemundo and Univision.

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