Gentle reader, I’d like you to try an experiment: Choose a 1-hour TV show you watched last night and pretend you’re relating the story to somebody who is generally familiar with concept of the show—perhaps some of the characters, its location, and general setting—and try to describe that night’s episode as quickly as you can, while conveying enough information for the imaginary listener to understand the storyline. Time yourself. And, when you’re finished, see how long it took. Chances are it was longer than 2 minutes. Probably closer to—I don’t know—maybe 15 minutes, 20 minutes, maybe even longer if it had a complicated plot.
Now, I’d like you to think back to the 2008 vice-presidential debate between Sen. Joe Biden and Gov. Sarah Palin. The format of the October 8 debate was this:
- The moderator (Gwen Ifill) asked each candidate a question, to which
- they had 90 seconds to respond.
- An open discussion period of 2 minutes followed, and,
- finally, each candidate was given 90 seconds to provide a closing statement.
Next, compare those times with what I asked you to do in my first paragraph. Which was longer, more complete, nuanced, contextualized, and informative? I’ll bet your imaginary listener left with a better understand of—say—One Tree Hill—than about the candidates’ views on foreign policy in the Middle East, or the effects of new taxes on the deficit.
Would it surprise anybody reading this that during the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates during the 19th century, the format was a little different and that
Douglas would speak first, for an hour; Lincoln would take an hour and a half to reply; Douglas, a half hour to rebut Lincoln’s reply.
One of Palin’s responses in 2008: “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”
One of Lincoln’s, in 1858
It will readily occur to you that I cannot, in half an hour, notice all the things that so able a man as Judge Douglas can say I an hour and a half; and I hope, therefore, if there be anything that he has said upon which you would like to hear something from me, but which I omit to comment upon, you will bear in mind that it would be expecting an impossibility for me to cover his whole ground.
Slightly different: in length, complexity, and context, wouldn’t you say? In one sentence, Lincoln acknowledges the time differential between his and Douglas’s declamations; that Douglass has covered several topics; and asks the audience’s forgiveness for not rebutting each and every argument.
“Say it ain’t so, Joe.”
This next series of blog posts will deal with the fact that journalists have accepted, perhaps even promoted, the notion that their readers require less and less information with which to form their opinions. Whether it’s deciding to begin watching a TV series or deciding the next leaders of the free world.
Today, our elected officials need not spell out complicated and detailed campaign platforms, nor provide solid, informative answers to difficult questions. In the 21st Century, a 9-second sound bite is usually all that it takes.
Lincoln’s quotes are from: Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business