Why Electoral Debates are a Circus

Televised presidential debates are once again the center of commentary in Brazil. And once again we are left with “no clear winner” and very little idea of what kind of discussion we watched between would-be rulers. Why is that?

Modern journalism — Walter Lippman’s ideal of the intermediation of facts between the public and the elites — is specially adapted to corporate production of news and analyses. As Kevin Carson observes, the current journalistic model requires minimal reference to facts, since facts themselves are not independently important of their support by a “specialized” elite.  

More than a content generation model, current journalism is also an organization practice, since it devalues journalistic labor, because it loses its reference point and has to resort to the subjective opinions of those who are already in established positions inside social and political institutions. When journalistic work is hollowed out like that, it becomes just a tool to replicate the validity of a social structure, because it’s that structure which validates journalism itself (the coverage of protests, for instance, is only valid when a police officer speaks about it; the coverage of elections is only validated if it exhibits the opinions of representatives of established political parties; and so on).

Thus, when the journalist gets away from that production model and seeks sources and facts that are independent of the approval of established players, there’s a sensation of strangeness. There’s a breakout from what is generally considered to be the role of the press and a deviation from what has been internalized as journalistic neutrality. For instance, after the recent interviews with Brazilian presidential candidates on the largest newscast in the country, Jornal Nacional, there have been several criticisms to anchor William Bonner’s incisiveness. He tended not to attach himself too much to the authorized subjects of the Good Political Debate (one very widespread idea on politics nowadays is that we’re supposed to “discuss the candidates’s proposals,” implicitly assuming that the very existence of these proposals is desirable or justifiable, given the history of presidential programs and projects).

In this search for institutional neutrality, moreover, a very common scenario occurs in the evaluation of presidential debates. After Band’s and SBT’s debates, there were several analyses that didn’t reference any undisputed fact or discussion that had taken place. Instead, journalists acted as media training consultants, assessing whether candidates were “nervous,” or “fumbled their answers,” or “weren’t secure,” or “projected a strong image,” or “sounded trustworthy,” among other banalities.

This kind of evaluation doesn’t require any recourse to facts and assumes a passiveness from the viewer, who is seen as incapable of assessing the performance of candidates and their discourses. If journalists assumed an active viewer, they would pass their own evaluation on the content and posture of the candidates; they would say that the candidate performed well, presented his ideas well or badly, showed herself the best or the worst among the options, for instance. Instead, journalists imagine an average viewer and voter, who assesses attitudes in a very specific pattern and worries particularly about certain gestures and ways of talking.

Journalists will never let out their own opinion about politicians, having a clear ideology as a starting point, but they will pontificate on how the candidates “were seen” (as strong or weak) and “were considered” (as trustworthy or not). Never from their own point of view, always from the point of view of some obscure independent evaluator to whom no one has access — the average viewer.

The very debate format is also questionable: Why is it that candidates have any freedom at all to select the themes they want to talk about? Isn’t it implausible that the politicians themselves know what’s relevant for the population at large? Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to assume that the candidates — especially to very high up in the ladder positions — are too detached from the concerns of the people and more worried about keeping their own prestige?

That’s why electoral debates, even though they’re seen as excellent TV entertainment (especially nowadays, when tow along thousands of memes and jokes in social media), don’t have any informative value on politics.

Their format is vitiated and journalists, who should be able to provide an objective evaluation of discussions, put themselves in the place of an imaginary voter. And journalists are not the ones who set the important issues to be discussed — the politicians are, for journalism currently has no validity outside the existent social structures.

And that’s why electoral debates are a circus.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory