Sunday night's nationally televised presidential debate among the Democratic candidates was the first ever conducted in Spanish. But the hosting network, Univision, handled it as ineptly as if this was the first time anyone had dared to put a pack of candidates before a camera in any language.
Almost everything about it was a dud, rendering the entire exercise little more than a gimmick. It's hard to figure what any Latino voter, or better said any voter, would have gotten out of it. It was back to 1984, format-wise, as if no one at America's largest Spanish-speaking TV network had noticed any shift whatsoever in communications over the last two decades.
The huge live Miami audience, even more than usual in these sort of events, were reduced to mere props. Not even token questions were allowed from the floor. Worse, Univision allowed no other reporters, other than their own two star anchors Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas, any form of participation. So you could forget, Dios Mio, about any Spanish-language bloggers (or citizens) having any shot.
While the questions were supposedly culled from those submitted earlier by Univision viewers, the chosen queries were uniformly non-confrontational and conveniently open-ended - the sort of questions pols dream of. The candidates might as well have been tele-transported to an underhand soft-ball batting cage for 90 minutes. "Are you taking any risks by appearing before a Spanish-speaking audience?" was the first laugher rolled out by Salinas. "Do you support immigration reform?" "Would you make Spanish a second language?" 'What's the most important contribution Latinos make to America?" were some of the other whiffle balls limply pitched.
Univision researchers took no time or effort to ply whatever authentic differences exist among the candidates nor to challenge any of them on the contradictions and waffles that mark their respective records and campaign promises. The closest anything came to a moment of tension was when Senators Clinton and Obama were asked why they, indeed, had voted for construction of a wall along the Mexican border. But even this question was off the mark as it evaded the complicated circumstances of the votes they cast.
The rigidly formatted debate allotted precise amounts of equal time to candidates who are hardly equal. More aggravating, the anchors seemed bereft of any creativity, any spunk, any passion, or for that matter any journalistic sense, as they made no attempt to confront one candidate's views with another. The field wasn't leveled - it was utterly flattened.
Even the Spanish-language aspect of the program was rather forced. The questions were all simultaneously translated into English for the candidates and their English-language answers were dutifully interpreted in the opposite direction giving the whole program the air of a high school UN. As someone who is perfectly bi-lingual, I had difficulty following either language track.
The end result was the biggest Democratic love-in yet among the twenty-odd such similar events that have dotted the political/media landscape. By mid-point, my Chilean wife and I were laughing aloud at what had become a rather shameless fiesta of brazen pander and were left with nothing more to do except trying to suss out the nationality of each of the (very gifted) interpreters. We had already been long convinced that each one of the Democratic candidates really, really loved Latinos.
More than a missed opportunity to directly engage what has becoming one of the fastest growing and most significant slices of the electorate, the Univision debate came off not only as unwittingly funny but also as rather offensive and patronizing. Univision and its celebrity anchors need to do some catching up. Not only should they more directly engage their audience, but also offer it some minimal respect. This could have been and should have been a truly historic event rather than just one more crass niche-marketing device. Despiertame de la siesta cuando termine el programa!