The cynical take on the debate speaking times

I can’t help but take this a step further. Last post I noted that in Tuesday’s MSNBC Democratic presidential debate, the amount of time spoken by each candidate was correlated ridiculously well with their latest poll numbers, to the extent that it is impossible to believe this was not planned. I don’t know who planned it, but it would seem to me that it is [MS]NBC that had the most to gain. (If the candidates voted on the rules, certainly a majority would not have agreed to such a distribution of time.)

NBC’s (presumed) choice to distribute time is no less than a judgment about who should be president. (And it’s ironic that this would fuel the pundits who come on later to ask “who won” the debate. They should just ask their corporate buddies who they decided to give more screen time to.) Proportioning time is different from cutting out candidates entirely. Not everyone can reasonably fit on a stage or within 2 hours, and a debate with 20 candidates isn’t going to be of particular use to the public. But, given a fixed number of candidates to include, and assuming the public benefits equally from hearing from each, then distributing the time grossly unevenly among the candidates doesn’t serve anyone except those that have something to gain through the election of one candidate or another, and it’s highly presumptuous.

So why would NBC do that? Before the obvious answer, there are two possibilities. The most generous is that the executives believe that the stronger or more likely to win candidates have some claim to more time. Why waste TV time on a candidate who won’t win? But this doesn’t explain the situation. John Edwards is not without hope, but NBC still gave 1.5 times more time to Clinton than to him.

The second possibility is that NBC believes this distribution will get higher ratings for the debate. Actually this isn’t an unreasonable idea. If it’s true that people watch what they want to hear, than people could prefer a debate when their preferred candidate speaks more. Then, proportioning out the time by each’s number of supporters could, in principle, make economic sense. (It’s not obvious that mathematically it does make sense, but you could make up an economic story to make it work.)

The third, cynical possibility is that NBC executives are being swayed by their own personal situations. By limiting the majority of the debate time to a few candidates, they increase the influence of their own campaign contributions to those candidates. I don’t know whether NBC execs contribute particularly differently from the population at large, but here are the numbers from CRP. Looking at donations from self-reported NBC executives of $500 or more to Democrats in the debate, $14,500 went to Obama, $7,600 to Clinton, $2,300 to Dodd, and nothing to anyone else. These numbers are no explanation for the time proportioning (then we would expect Clinton to have received the most), but it does show us that the NBC executives have a personal stake in the top candidates, just like everyone else. And if I were them, I certainly wouldn’t want the candidate I contributed to to be out-debated by an opponent who later goes on to win the White House. Who wants to contribute to a loser?

With either of the last two reasons, there is a large conflict of interest. It’s impossible to get out of it: Time was probably proportioned either to bolster ratings (i.e. playing with politics for money), or to bolster particular candidates (i.e. playing with politics for control).

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