Debate Open Letter

DEBATE OPEN LETTER….Over at Mark Thoma’s place you can read an open letter to ABC that characterizes this week’s presidential debate as a “revolting descent into tabloid journalism.” It’s signed by several dozen lefty types, including me, but Alex Tabarrok has a slight demurral:

I agree. The only thing the signatories got wrong was where to send the letter. The letter should have been addressed to the American public. After all, this debate, which came in the flurry of all the tabloid journalism of the past several weeks, was the most-watched of the 2008 presidential campaign. The public got what it wanted.

I really don’t think that follows. People tuned in to the debate before they had any idea what the moderators were going to do with it. And it was almost certainly the highest rated debate of the year because (a) it was on ABC, not cable, (b) it was in prime time in all time zones, (c) it’s been nearly two months since the last one, and (d) interest in the Democratic race is at a fever pitch because it’s coming down to the wire and it’s the only game in town.

Most of the evidence, I think, indicates that the American public is far more receptive to serious policy wonkery than the press gives them credit for. They want to hear the candidates get pressed on substantive issues. Which isn’t to say that tomfoolery doesn’t have a place too. This is America, after all. But a full hour out of a two-hour debate? The American public has given no indication that this is what it wants.

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