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Minnich: Are debates more than showbiz?

It’s debatable.

Having covered debates as a reporter and then a civilian and then again as one of the debaters, I have some reservations about the whole idea of putting all this emphasis on the performance of what could be compared to low theater.

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Vaudeville, perhaps. Soap opera.

The upside of the debate format is that it gives a glimpse of how well a candidate thinks on their feet and reacts to pressure.

But it doesn’t measure the depth of thoughtfulness in the well when the topics get into evaluation of all the ramifications of the decisions to be weighed.

Debate success depends on first — or shallow — impressions. People are influenced first by what they think they know or have read in the sources of information that comfort their prejudices — you can call them values, if it makes you feel better — or what their friends say.

Increasingly, debates have become just another dog and pony show, a hyped-up main event in the national cage fight of American vote-scrounging.

Don’t even dignify it by calling it politics, because to do so perpetuates the perception that politics is less about governance and all about marketing. And we have had our fill of snake-oil salesmen passing through over the years. The current one sells venom. Successfully.

For a reporter, debates and even one-on-one interviews are just one step at getting a true picture of the attributes and flaws of someone who wanted to influence public issues. Journalistic skills in detecting the difference between the varying levels of honesty were developed more in covering politics than on the crime beat.

As citizens, we should resent and distrust any hint of misdirection or evasiveness as an alternative to a reasonable question — the damnable “talking points.” Thinking people also resent the gotcha game played by rival candidates and their fans, and the less responsible members of the news media when the ideal is to have a serious and candid discussion of truths.

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As a candidate for public office, I first welcomed the opportunity to appear in person before a large group of people and engage in a give and take on the work that needed to be done for good government.

A part of that is because I’ve always disliked door to door campaigning; it’s a short interruption of someone’s dinner, nap or soap opera, and leaves little behind other than some pamphlet that is all too similar to the other pamphlets left behind by political troubadours through the neighborhood.

Small group gatherings are best for drawing out the thinking and values — the ethics — of people who want to serve in public office. Too many in the audience lends itself to the show-biz mode, and the magic goes out of the art of meaningful conversation and rational debate.

Mainstream media is much maligned today, but at least they have gatekeepers to catch most of the inaccuracies, so you can find both depth and verity if you’re serious about learning the facts as well as the images that partisans are foisting on the public.

Debates can be like drinking water out of a hose, or a food fight. Good citizenship is better served by sipping the different wines, sampling the myriad plates brought to the buffet, sharing opinions and thoughtful questions — and listening.

But for so many behind the scenes political gamers, the enthusiastic ideologs, it’s really about the contest: Trash-talking, in-you-face, pull-their-pants-down victory over the other team.

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As for what really works as public policy on behalf of the general population, well, they can think about that later, work it out as they go along, make a few adjustments to soften the expectations set up by the campaign rally rhetoric and televised drama.

Gotta win, first, so they can get to work on planning for the next election.

Dean Minnich retired from full-time journalism and served two terms as a county commissioner. His column appears on Thursdays. Reach him at dminnichwestm@gmail.com.

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