Tuesday, 30 March 2010

2 Interviews about presidential debates




Sheila Blackford is library specialist for Miller Center of Public Affairs.
I asked her few questions.

1) How many people watch the presidential speeches in Miller site?

The Presidential Speech Archive at the Miller Center of Public Affairs gets almost 10 percent of the Center’s total web traffic. In raw numbers that means that the detail pages for the speeches plus the main page were viewed more than 81,500 times in the last month (from February 21 to March 24, 2010).


2) For Miller institute, is it very hard to get in possess with old video of former presidents?

To obtain a copy of the presidential speeches, the Miller Center partners with the National Archives presidential libraries (for example, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum--http://www.lbjlib.utexas.edu/ or the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library-- http://www.reaganlibrary.com/). These libraries exist for presidents from Herbert Hoover forward. From John F. Kennedy forward, it is relatively easy to obtain video copies of the speeches from these libraries. However, it is much more complicated to obtain videos for earlier presidents (Eisenhower, Truman, Roosevelt, Hoover) because the footage is not in the public domain but is protected by copyright and owned by television news networks.


3) Who owns the copyright of speeches of former presidents?

We post the videos on our site under the assumption that they are in the public domain. However, we recommend that anyone wishing to use or copy the video speeches, contact the relevant presidential library to get a definitive statement about the copyright before proceeding because we are not the official custodians of the records and cannot make a definitive statement about the copyright status.


4) Do you think that the presidential debates are decisive or, most of the times, is it a just a show for the media industry?

There have been moments in presidential election history where the presidential debates have made a difference in the election. Most famously are the Nixon/Kennedy debates of 1960, which historians argue helped tip the balance toward Kennedy. However, generally they are not a decisive event but help people learn more about the candidates and their positions, and reaffirm for the voters the candidate that they already preferred.


Alan Schroeder is an associate professor at Northeastern University (Boston) and he wrote a book called Presidential Debates: 40 Years of High-Risk TV (Columbia University Press, 2000)
I asked him few questions.

1) Do you think that the presidential debates are decisive or, most of the times, is it a just a show for the media industry?

In some cases they have been very influential, such as 1960 with Kennedy and Nixon and also 1980 with Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Decisive is probably too strong a word, because it's impossible to separate debates from all the other factors that influence voting decisions.


2) This year, for first time in history, there will be a general election debate in UK (with 3 candidates). What do you think about foreign "adaptations" of US presidential debates? Do you think it will work among 3 speakers or will lose "duel-like" style?

More than 70 countries around the world have held live televised debates among candidates for president or prime minister. Last year both Iran and Afghanistan joined the list of countries that have experimented with TV debates. Debates have proven to be very popular in all parts of the world. Voters like them because they are both entertaining and educational. The element of being live and unscripted also heightens public and media interest.

Three debaters on the stage does change the dynamic, though it's impossible to predict how the format will work in the UK prime minister debates. In the US we had one round of three-way debates in 1992 that included the first President Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot. Perot more or less won the first debate, Clinton won the second, and Bush performed well in the third. So who knows?


3) On 1968 Nixon ran again for White House, on 1972 he sought a second term and both times refused to challenge in presidential debates (i would say he could do that because there was not an established tradition of having presidential debates). I think that today a candidate for the White House can not refuse a debate (like Nixon did on 1968 and 1972). Since when, can't a candidate say "No, i won't go in a presidential debate" without seeming weak?

At this point in the US it would be just about impossible for a presidential candidate to avoid a debate. The tradition in this country is too well established. In other countries, candidates still manage to refuse -- just this year in the Ukraine, to name one example. In the US it would take an extreme national emergency for an incumbent president to get out of debating.


4) Who had the idea of a televised (and radio broadcast too) presidential debate in 1960?

Many people were involved in the beginning, but essentially the Kennedy-Nixon debates were a creation of the three major television networks: ABC, CBS, and NBC.


5) Using Internet, do you think it's possible to make innovations to presidential debates?

Yes, we see this already. The YouTube format, with citizens submitting questions on video, has been used successfully in both the US and New Zealand. Interactive online debates are now common as well. Nonetheless, debates remain primarily a television exercise that plays out secondarily on the internet.


6) Who owns the copyright of presidential debates? Broadcasters or speakers?

In America the debates are produced by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a non-profit organization in Washington DC, which I assume holds the copyright. I'm not an expert on the legal aspect of this, but it seems to me that video clips from all the debates are available to anyone who wants to use them. So the material may exist in the public domain, or perhaps there's some kind of common creative license that applies -- I'm just not sure.


7) We know that presidential candidates prepare for the debates: How can they prepare? Which advice would you give to a candidate?

Candidates prepare for debates in a variety of ways. In US presidential debates it is typical for the candidates to undergo full-scale rehearsals involving mock opponents, using the exact format of the actual debate. Candidates also do extensive reading about the issues and about their opponents' positions in order to prepare for debates. Typically the practice sessions are videotaped and critiqued by the candidates' advisors.

As for advice, I would remind candidates that debates are a different form of political performance than other campaign appearances such as press conferences, speeches, and interviews. Candidates need to have a thorough understanding of the format and also of their specific objectives for each debate. Finally, I would say that in spite of the pressure, candidates should try to enjoy the debate, because voters want to see a leader who is self-confident and in command of the situation.

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