Rick Sanchez: Town Hall Debate, All Show and No Go

Tonight, we'll see the second Presidential "debate." I use that term loosely since this is really a "town hall," which seems to me to be a waste of a good opportunity to see these two candidates actually debate.

And I use the words "town hall" loosely too.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for citizen participation. Ever been to a local zoning board meeting? Anyone with anything to say gets a chance to argue his or her case forcing public servants to endure, fold or shine. Maybe that's the way it should be. Maybe that is democracy at work.

But both my gut and history tell me that what we will see tonight between President Obama and Governor Romney will actually be the antithesis of democracy.

Will this "town hall" be produced by the people and for the people? Absolutely not.

No, this phony, manufactured piece of television is being produced by and for the benefit of media and political power brokers. It's reality TV at its worst. It's Jersey Shore with people in suits and without the annoying accents.

What a shame... not to mention a lost opportunity.

Let me take you back to the most recent town hall debate between then Senators Obama and McCain using the same format, as we'll see tonight. It begins with Tom Brokaw assuring us that he has selected his "long list of excellent questions" from the "tens of thousands that were sent in." Talk about media filtering.

Then he tells the audience they are not allowed to react. No "cheers or outbursts," he says. Even polite applause is forbidden. Which makes us wonder, well then, why are they even there?

My question is quickly answered when Brokaw introduces us to elderly audience member Allen Shaffer, who stands up and nervously reads a notecard with the following media approved question:

"With the economy on the downturn and retired and older citizens losing their incomes, what’s the fastest, most positive solution to bail these people out?"

It is a sterile and rehearsed softball question.  We're left to wonder what Shaffer or some other audience member would really ask if given the chance to be unfiltered. Maybe something like, "I'm 70 years old and I've worked my whole life. You know what?  I'm worried for my country, for myself and for my family.  I'm angry and I demand to know why you two Senators let this happen and what you're going to do about it."

That is how Americans actually talk.  That is real.

But that's not what we'll hear tonight. We will see an auditorium filled with pre-screened participants chosen by Gallup who will ask pre-screened questions chosen by Candy Crowley. And we're told these people who have been reduced to all but props are actually... "undecided voters!"  Cue suspenseful music: gripping political theater coming up (I'm being sarcastic).

An overly produced and controlled event can only result in overly produced and controlled answers. Candidates are ready for the pedestrian pre-approved questions coming their way: they'll simply fall back on talking points and stump speeches, all of which consist of sound bites we've heard over and over again already.

I would argue that if given half a chance, real Americans would ask questions that are just as smart and insightful as many of those asked by member of the media.

But I know what you're thinking. C'mon Sanchez, do we really want somebody to get up and ask Obama if he's Muslim, or ask Romney about his so-called magic Mormon underwear? Actually, yes.

As ridiculous as the questions might be and as disinterested as we may be in the shallowness of their implication, I would be fascinated to see how the candidates react to questions the media would never ask, yet Americans talk about at their kitchen tables. Would Obama get angry? Would Romney use it as an opportunity to talk about his seldom discussed faith? I don't know about you, but I would want to watch their reaction?

The value of a town hall setting is spontaneity. And after decades of writing, hosting and producing television news, if I've learned anything, it's this: spontaneity can be neither scripted nor produced. It doesn't work.

These "made-for-TV" town halls produce "made-for-TV" moments that the media will report on, regardless of how unimportant they are, since they are the only real and spontaneous parts of this entire show. George H.W. Bush looked at his watch during the debate? Oh my. Did you see Clinton's body language? Al Gore invaded W's personal space? That's it? That's the big drama? C'mon.

This town hall debate is "the one and only" opportunity Americans have every four years to speak directly to the candidates. Real people with real questions and real reactions in what should be a real and spontaneous event. Instead, they're used as shills, carefully chosen extras and stand-ins for the illusion of media optics. What a shame.

My advice, for what it's worth, is do away with the pretense. That means either get rid of the town hall format altogether or let it be a real town hall, warts and all. Trust the people, trust Americans. Could they do any worse than those who are now the arbiters of this unreal and overly produced process?

Polls show that Americans disapproval of politicians is at an all time low--16 percent for members of congress. As for the media, Rasmussen finds that only 26 percent of Americans say they trust the information they get from journalists about the presidential race. And these distrusted journalists are the people who are screening and filtering the questions America should be allowed to ask.  It's no wonder they don't want people to react.

Who should screen whom?

I would argue it should be the other way around. Maybe it's time for the media and political power brokers to get out of the way and let real people ask real questions in a real town hall debate. What the hell?  It's only once every four years and we certainly couldn't do any worse than the sham we have today.  If anything, it might actually become the only chance for us to see these candidates come face to face with a healthy dose of skepticism and reality. Now that is something I'd want to watch.