Barry McNamara  |   Published October 05, 2016

There’s no debate

Angotti says this year’s campaign events have taken ‘a real downturn’
Monmouth College faculty member Joe Angotti says there’s no debate – debates in this presidential election cycle have strayed from their purpose of bringing information about the candidates and their policies to the people.

That said, the visiting distinguished professor of communication studies said the moderators of the first presidential debate and the vice presidential debate – NBC’s Lester Holt and CBS’s Elaine Quijano, respectively – have done a better job of reining in the audience and making the events “more civil.”

“The previous debates really set up a pattern that turned them into television spectacles,” said Angotti, the former executive producer of NBC Nightly News who also worked on the 1976, 1980 and 1988 presidential debates for the network. “I was told that at the very first debate (earlier this year), moderators did not request the audience at all to not cheer, boo or hiss. As a result, the audience became part of the debate. Candidates started playing to the audience, giving one-liners that they knew would get a reaction.”

Angotti said he believes that Donald Trump’s personality has driven that development, and that a change in the Republican nominee’s approach would be a good idea.

“He should (change), but I don’t know that he can,” Angotti said. “I don’t know that he has the personality or the discipline to prepare for the debates. I’ve heard that he’s gotten very distracted when people try to present him with facts.”

The next presidential debate will be Oct. 9 in St. Louis with a town meeting format.

“The big question will be, ‘Is Trump able to retain facts and present them in a calm, logical manner?’ I’m not sure his personality will allow him to do that,” Angotti said.

Angotti said Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is not beyond reproach, either.

“She seemed to be gloating during the debate,” he said. “She seemed a little overconfident after making a particular point. She was a little too pleased with herself. I think she needs to be a little more humble.”

Angotti was asked if the presidential debates influence undecided voters.

“I think they do, and I think they will,” he replied, “although they used to make a greater difference than they do now.”

Less obvious, said Angotti, is the impact of vice presidential debates, which one pundit on NBC’s Meet the Press said would have “zero” effect once a new news cycle begins.

“I think I kind of agree with that,” Angotti said. “A lot was left unanswered. I don’t think either one of them did exceptionally well or exceptionally poorly. (GOP nominee Mike) Pence came across as the more thoughtful of the candidates, and (Democratic nominee Tim) Kaine came out as the more aggressive – maybe a little too aggressive – although coming after Trump and his taxes was an understandable debate position.”

Angotti said that he and his NBC team developed a strong debate model, when six Democrat presidential hopefuls and six Republicans – including eventual nominees Michael Dukakis and George Bush – gathered on Dec. 1, 1987, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Angotti was executive producer of the debate, which was moderated by NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw.

“We had Brokaw walking among the candidates, getting up right next to them to ask them follow up questions,” Angotti said. “At some of these recent debates, the moderators are so far away from the candidates.”

He added, “Interruptions were unheard of then. I think Trump has changed the whole nature of debates, and they’ve taken a real downturn.”
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