Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Big Labor struts its stuff at debate

Big Labor struts its stuff at debate
Copyright by The Chicago Sun Times
August 8, 2007

In the steamy, sticky environs of Chicago's Soldier Field last night, the winner wasn't any one of the Democratic presidential wannabes who jockeyed for rhetorical primacy. Not Biden, Clinton, Dodd, Edwards, Kucinich, Obama or Richardson. They were as much a part of the audience as the rest of us.
The winner last night was Big Labor. And it was strutting its stuff.

The AFL-CIO-sponsored "Presidential Candidates Forum" brought more than 10,000 union members and their families to Chicago's revered football field. They were there to demonstrate that labor still belongs in the gladiator class when it comes to constituencies capable of determining the leader of the free world in 2008. This despite plummeting union membership, erosion of its manufacturing base, and internal struggles that have factionalized it.

Though the AFL-CIO's choice of a 60,000-seat venue violated the long-standing political principle of always making sure your crowd is bigger than the room you wedge it into, that's a small nit to pick in an otherwise stellar display of labor's leaders marketing their union wares and forcing candidates to fall all over themselves promising to man/woman the picket lines.

"Four years ago," said Rick Jasculca of Jasculca/Terman and Associates, the project manager of last night's event, "we did this at Navy Pier with 1,800 attending and C-SPAN broadcasting it."

This time, organizers had irreverent political junkie and talk show host Keith Olbermann moderating and MSNBC, WMAQ-TV and XM Satellite broadcasting it live. The AFL-CIO, in true Marshall McLuhan fashion, had it all -- the medium and the message.

Still, let's resist any further temptation to refer to these events as "debates."

At best, they are demonstration projects of the clout of the groups doing the inviting and, only secondarily, proving grounds for the quickwittedness of candidates whose chief task is to make no memorable mistakes.

Just this past weekend, another "debate" took place here in Chicago. The DailyKos Web site held its YearlyKos convention to flex its own considerable blogospheric political muscle. And here again, it was all about the audience, like the bloggers who booed Hillary or sang "Happy Birthday" to Barack.

As television critics who like to lament the morphing of news into "infotainment," these candidate forums are susceptible to the same criticism: more eye candy than content. And that worries true debate devotees like my friend Newton Minow.

Minow is one of the fathers of the televised presidential debate, having been at the birth of it in 1960 here in Chicago, where the Kennedy-Nixon debate was staged at CBS' WBBM-TV.

"The first debate had no audience at all," Minow said. "The original idea was a neutral sponsor like a broadcaster or the League of Women Voters. Now the sponsor is partisan, so the character of the debate has changed."

Is that a bad thing?

"It's a bad thing," Minow said.

Minow is 81, but he's nobody's fuddy-duddy about television. An avid watcher of "The Sopranos," he loves the power of great TV. But his worry is hardly misplaced. Rather than have a debate be about the audience, he wants us all to focus fully on the candidates. And though more formal, nonpartisan national debates will be staged next year after each party has decided on a nominee, what we're seeing this year is more of a traveling road show geared to increase the importance of the promoters, not necessarily the process. Or the public, for that matter.


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