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Maybe Journalists Don't Belong At Presidential Debates

Republican presidential hopefuls Marco Rubio, Donald Trump and Ben Carson applaud as the candidates are introduced at the start of the third Republican Presidential Debate.
Robyn Beck
AFP/Getty Images
Republican presidential hopefuls Marco Rubio, Donald Trump and Ben Carson applaud as the candidates are introduced at the start of the third Republican Presidential Debate.

It's tempting to make jokes about the demands Republican candidates made of broadcasters for future debates — and believe me, I have.

But I've also squirmed to see reporters bark at presidential candidates to raise their hands, yes or no, to reply to a question, as if they were schoolchildren asking for a bathroom break. And including 30-second long opening and closing statements sounds like the least an audience might have the right to expect in a two-hour debate. Thirty seconds is just a fifth of the time of this essay.

The campaigns' demand that the hall be no warmer than 67 degrees sounds like the petulant contract stipulation of a vain rock star. But imagine if you knew that millions of people would watch and judge you close-up, searching for the smallest imperfection. You could be eloquent, funny and insightful, but if you look a little shiny after two hours under hot TV lights, you know lots of people would just call you, "the sweaty one."

All the talk about how the debates should be run, and what questions are fair, or not, has made me wonder: should reporters be part of these debates at all?

I don't think journalists should have to abide by rules, other than good sense, when it comes to asking anyone questions. For that matter, I don't think candidates should always have to pack their answers to critical questions into 30-second meatballs, or take precious time to answer questions about polls instead of policies.

Reporters didn't ask questions at the Lincoln-Douglas debates. People shouted questions from the crowd.

So instead of casting journalists to ask questions, why not get a banker, a police officer, someone who's been laid off, someone who works for tips, and someone who runs a roofing business? I know that sounds like The Village People.

Or a plumber, a software developer, a single mother, and someone who sells shoes?

Or a priest, a rabbi, a minister, an atheist, and an imam? Imagine the jokes.

And instead of questions concocted to catch a candidate off-guard, citizens might ask about issues you hope anyone who runs for president has thought about—a lot. Like, "Would you try to reduce the $18 trillion dollar U.S. debt?" Or, "Are there freedoms you are willing to limit to try to protect against terrorism?" Or, "Is every U.S. citizen entitled to the medical care?"

The specifics they offer — or don't — might tell people a lot about what they consider important and what they would do. Oh wait — does that sound too much like a real town hall debate?

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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