The Digital Journalist
The Debate

by Ron Steinman

Just when many critics had all but buried "The West Wing" for being stale and not reflecting what, for some, is the real America - whatever that is - the show redeemed itself with its first live broadcast, a debate between its two candidates for president. Taking place in the seventh year of the show on episode 139, and called simply, The Debate, it was broadcast live twice: once on the East Coast, and then live again for the West Coast, a move normally taken care of by a tape repeat, and thus also a first for the show.

Initially I did not watch the program, thinking it a clever show business ploy - in other words, a stunt - and not worth my time. Then the editor of this magazine asked me to look at a tape of the show. I did, and though, yes, a stunt - a live broadcast in today's world of carefully-crafted taped shows has to be a stunt - it was a beauty for its quality and the care and intelligence of its writing.

Broadcast Nov. 6, 2005, two days before the off-year elections, I did not see it until several weeks later. Watching it in the quiet of my office made me think seriously about real politics, something I covered for many years. The live presentation on "The West Wing" was wonderful, but there was something even better. The idea of the debate on an entertainment show, which is serious about its writing, acting and production, far outstrips the idea of the debate itself. Watching and listening to it should provide lessons for us all.

I am not a fan of political debates. Candidates' managers conceive the rules to protect their people. Most debates are dull, and uninformative. They are a lesson in avoidance. Each candidate presents his or her views on policy and on everything else, much of which is inane. Rarely is there true give and take. Each person in the debate fears making a mistake, which prevents them from truly reaching out to voters.

Living in New York I am most familiar with two recent political campaigns, the mayoral race in New York City, and the race for governor of New Jersey. Both candidates for New Jersey governor were very rich men. The campaign was ugly, so dirty, in fact, that people in New Jersey universally reacted strongly to the low blows each candidate hurled at the other, especially in their commercials. I saw one of the debates they held, and the men, Republican Douglas Forrester and Democrat John Corzine, were equally inarticulate. The rules, ones with which we are familiar, because all debate rules are about the same, were stultifying. They effectively denied intelligent discourse.

In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire who spent more than $50 million on his campaign, easily defeated Ferdinand Ferrer by 20 points. You would expect - nay hope - that each man, a seasoned politician, would be quick on his feet, and a seasoned debater. They were not. In the few debates they had, each man proved he was equally inarticulate, in itself not very surprising. In one debate, Ferrer showed some drive and tried to hammer home a few points, but, with the exception of some mild recognition in the press of his effort, what he said went unnoticed and had no effect on the campaign.

Think back to the Bush-Kerry debate when wags, bloggers and just about every journalist thought the unsightly bulge in the president's ill-fitting jacket had to be - just had to be - a transmitter for feeding him answers to the mostly softball questions in a debate dominated, again, by foolish ground rules.

Each of us has our own references and disappointments with political debates. Substitute them freely for mine above and when you do, you will see every political debate is simply a template from every past debate and, sadly, also a harbinger for those in the future.

All these men and probably the legions of others, women included, who debated in the last election would have done much better had they the benefit of a writer such as Lawrence O'Donnell, Jr., who wrote "The West Wing" debate between Congressman Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits), the Democrat, and Senator Arnold Vinick, the Republican. In some ways, Alda and Smits had bulges in their jackets in the form of sentences conceived and supplied to the Teleprompter by a writer as informed as O'Donnell, Jr.

Think of it. A live debate on network TV with two poised men who, if real politicians, would surely have made their political parties proud. They actually discussed issues, most reflecting those that affect us in real life. And think, too, of the size of the audience. Had the same audience existed for the Bush-Kerry debates, and had each of the debate candidates come close to Smits and Alda, how much better informed our electorate would be.

But the American electorate's need to be informed apparently means more for an entertainment show such as "The West Wing" than it does for the parties and politicians to whom we entrust our well-being. Yes, it was entertainment, and we can be as cynical as we want about Hollywood and its "nefarious" ways, but if one listened carefully, one came away with a better sense of red state-blue state positions than we get from the heavily partisan politics that currently rule and divide our country.

Finally, I have a word about form. Almost as soon as the debate started, the candidates threw out the rulebook for the prescribed minutes and seconds for statements and replies and counter-statements. Each man, being an actor, was able to handle the change and use hand-held mikes to wander the stage and confront each other, at times getting as close to one another as football linemen do. It made for very good television, but would never work in real life, though I would like to think I could dream.

© Ron Steinman

At NBC News for 35 years, Ron Steinman was bureau chief in Saigon, Hong Kong and London, was a senior producer on "Today" and wrote and produced for "Sunday Today." At ABC News Productions, he produced and wrote documentaries for A&E, TLC, Discovery, Lifetime and the History Channel. He has a Peabody, a National Headliner Award, a National Press Club Award, an International Documentary Festival Gold Camera Award, two American Women in Radio & Television Awards and has been nominated for five Emmys. He is a partner in Douglas/Steinman Productions, whose latest documentary, "Luboml: My Heart Remembers," aired on PBS' WLIW/21 and the History Channel in Israel, April 29, 2003. He is the author of "The Soldiers' Story," "Women in Vietnam," and most recently, "Inside Television's First War: A Saigon Journal," University of Missouri Press, 2002.