MTSU’s Dr. Larry Burriss Commentary: ‘Debates’


By Larry Burriss

Oct. 2, 2023

Well, the first two presidential debates are over, and the candidates, well, actually, the “candidate wanna be’s” said pretty much what we expected them to, in what was, in essence, a series of mini-speeches and personal attacks.

Marc Lewis Farmers Insurance     But none of the candidate committed any serious gaffes, which is more than can be said for other encounters in the 63-year history of the televised debates.




In the first debate, in 1960, for example, candidate Richard Nixon refused to wear television makeup, and his decision gave him a tense, haggard image next to the fresh and vibrant John Kennedy.
Another mistake hurt another Republican, this time incumbent Gerald Ford, who, in 1976, insisted Eastern Europe was not dominated by the Soviet Union.
In 1992 another blunder helped undo another Republican candidate, President George Bush. The president was clearly uncomfortable in the more informal format of debate, and at one point the cameras caught him stealing a telling glance at his watch.

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But the Democrats have also had their share of problems. In 1988, candidate Michael Dukakis coldly answered a question about a hypothetical rape and murder of his wife by reiterating his opposition to the death penalty, and calling for an international conference to fight the spread of drugs.

George H. W. Bush., left, and Michael Dukakis debate in Wait Chapel during the 1988 presidential campaign.

     But the important question, of course, is not did someone make a mistake, but do the voters really care about the missteps, gaffes and blunders? Well, there is evidence the voters don’t care, unless the media tell them they should.

The fact is, for instance, when Ford made that mistake about Poland and Eastern Europe, polls showed that the viewers later that evening and the next morning, didn’t think anything much had happened. It was only after a couple of days being told what a blunder this had been, that the public decided Ford had made a mistake.

So what do we get from these debates? Probably not much. The offhand remark, the nervous tic, the shifty gaze, the nasty exchange or the funny line that brings genuine laughter, is often what sticks in the public’s mind after presidential debates.
These indelible moments are like video shots at a wedding – the only parts you remember are because you see them again and again. And like the neighbor’s picture of their new grandchild, we will hear about them again, and again, and again, whether they’re important or not, and whether we want to or not.
I’m Larry Burriss.

Larry Burriss, a professor in Middle Tennessee State University’s College of Mass Communication and president of the Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame, welcomes the crowd before the induction ceremonies at the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters conference in Murfreesboro for the Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame. (MTSU photo by Andrew Oppmann)