Thursday, October 09, 2008

Taking the Town Out of 'Town Hall'

John McCain's supporters seemed happy with the ground rules of the second presidential debate in Nashville. Barack Obama's supporters seemed happy with the results. But many were troubled by the debate organizers' claim of true public participation in Tuesday's forum.

These are some of the findings of the third Citizens Media Scorecard rating the 2008 presidential and vice-presidential debates. An online panel of more than 2,800 volunteers was recruited by Free Press to "score" the conduct of moderator Tom Brokaw during the "town hall" styled debate.

Where's the Town in Town Hall?

Brokaw selected some questions from audience members and from more than 6 million e-mail and Internet submissions.

But a large portion of the questions were his own, and at times the audience members seemed more a backdrop to Brokaw than protagonists in the debate.

Republican McCain has long insisted that he prefers the town hall format for political debates. And, according to the panel, his supporters share his preference. Almost half the McCain partisans (48% vs. 24% for Barack Obama supporters) judged the town hall format in Nashville to be superior to the moderated format 11 days prior in Mississippi.

Checking the Spin

"Brokaw's balance of issues received high marks from partisans of both candidates," according to Andrew Tyndall of the Tyndall Report, who designed the Scorecard and analyzed the responses Tuesday night. "And their complaints about bias were in perfect balance too."

In the view of the panel, however, Brokaw's decision not to fact-check the candidates or challenge their spin was a problem: 83% of Obama supporters and 75% of McCain supporters wanted to see more challenging follow-up questions from the moderator.

"Like other moderators before him, Brokaw allowed the senators to avoid answering questions and meander to their own comfort zones," said one volunteer rater.

"[Brokaw] kept saying their answers were too long, but didn't focus enough on what they were saying," said another.

More Town Hall, Less Wax Museum

Writing for Tech President, Micah Sifry called the Town Hall format a "bust" for not more directly involving the public in the initial and follow-up questions. Sifry recommends having a follow-up round of public questions, "so the public and the candidates could dig deeper, and get past the soundbites."

"The pre-agreed rules that prevented the studio audience from asking follow-up questions or even showing emotion, made the 'town hall' style presidential debate more like a wax museum animatronic replica of a town hall," he wrote. "What a shame."

One debate rater said that it's not a town hall meeting "if the 'town hall' is not allowed to participate in the conversation other than by reading prepared questions."

"What makes a town hall meeting useful is the reaction of the audience," another panelist wrote. "This would have given us a chance to see how each candidate reacts immediately to public opinion."

Brokaw's Bias? Depends on Whom You Ask.

Despite the format, Obama's supporters were more likely to say their candidate won in Nashville (92% vs. 76% of supporters who rated the Sept. 26 Mississippi debate) whereas McCain's supporters saw no improvement (84% said he won both).

There were few complaints about Brokaw's bias towards one candidate or the other. Most of the members of each group of supporters found no favoritism (74% of Obama's, 70% of McCain's); a minority saw evidence of it, almost always against their preferred candidate (25% and 26%).

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