Late last month, there were questions all over the blogosphere about the authenticity of Kenya’s first presidential debate. For example, why was it held at
Brookhouse International School instead of a more symbolically national venue like The Kenya International Conference Center or The Bomas of Kenya? Why was it conducted in English instead of Kiswahili, even though only 20% of the Kenyan population is said to be English-speaking? Earlier this week, my lecturer asked us why the Kenyan media houses collaborated to organize the presidential debate in the first place. Some believe it was an act of patriotic duty, some say it was to flex their muscles, some say it was for ratings. I think it was for all of these things, especially the last one. But since the same debate was aired live on all stations across the country, maybe ratings didn’t come to play. The lecturer maintained it was to give us “Theatre”. As I said in my post “Candid Talk – 1: Politics – 0”, it was entertainment, plain and simple. For one thing, debating on 6 different “sides” on each topic at once can’t be anything less. But I was forced to question my contentment with what was, rather than what should have been.
Er, maybe because I like entertainment more than politics. Heck, sometimes I even believe it more, but that’s another story.
I like how premier Geoff Gallop puts it:
Which is kind of good because you can, I don’t know, predict what your future holds or something, but also bad because it has created a cult (yep, I said it) of people who are all obsessed with identifying themselves as more knowledgeable about reality than thinking about how it could be better. Just saying. Either way, We get so smug when we believe what we hear, ignoring the loopholes in our knowledge or the story. It’s almost like knowingly watching a fixed football match and still cheering your team on. From a Media Ethics perspective, the term ‘presidential debate’ was remarkably inaccurate for the said event.
Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) gives a good example of what a bona-fide presidential debate entails. He takes us back to Lincoln and Douglas’ face-offs in the 1850s:
… The first of the seven famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas took place on August 21, 1858, in Ottowa, Illinois. Their arrangement provided that Douglas would speak first, for one hour; Lincoln would take an hour and a half to reply; Douglas, a half hour to rebut Lincoln’s reply. This debate was considerably shorter than those to which the two men were accustomed. In fact, they had tangled several times before, and all of their encounters had been much lengthier and more exhausting. For example, on October 16, 1854, in Peoria, Illinois, Douglas delivered a three-hour address to which Lincoln, by agreement, was to respond. When Lincoln’s turn came, he reminded the audience that it was already 5 p.m. that he would probably require as much time as Douglas and that Douglas was still scheduled for a rebuttal.
He proposed, therefore, that the audience go home, have dinner, and return refreshed for four more hours of talk. The audience amiably agreed, and matters proceeded as Lincoln had outlined. What kind of audience was this? Who were these people who could so cheerfully accommodate themselves to seven hours of oratory? It should be noted, by the way, that Lincoln and Douglas Were not presidential candidates; at the time of their encounter in Peoria they were not even candidates for the United States Senate. But their audiences were not especially concerned with their official status. These were people who regarded such events as essential to their political education, who took them to be an integral part of their social lives, and who were quite accustomed to extended oratorical performances…
Whatever audience this was, does it exist any more? Well we would have to come closer to home to figure that out. I’m guessing the media figured this type of audience never really existed in Africa. Leadership was an ordained honour, and only the bravest and noblest sought to be in this position. One’s might was easily determined in battle, and it was known for a fact that leaders who didn’t serve their people well would be cursed to hell and high water. Debate wasn’t really our thing. Would the ratings have suffered if instead of six-on-six, we had one-on-one debates between each and every candidate? We might never know. Was the Kenyan public shortchanged by our media’s leapfrogging ways? Perhaps. What it really was is a presidential ‘talk show’.