There's a fundamental ingredient in journalism that all reporters look for -- where's the friction? Who's up? Who's down? Who's in, who's out? Without the friction, the story won't get ratings and it won't get on the front page, above the fold. Why friction? Because friction is what makes the world go 'round since the beginning of recorded history. Our earliest literature was Beowulf, an epic poem of friction between hero and monster. The Greek God myths have sons killing fathers. There's nation against nation, Communism vs. Capitalism, religion-science, North-South, Catholic-Protestant, Sunni-Shia, Red states-Blue states.
So, it should be no surprise when the friction of an event is, uh, less than thrilling, like the recent Democratic debate in Philadelphia. It's often the media who deliver what could politely be described as enhanced friction. Cable TV tagged it as "a brawl." The New York Times labeled it a "pitched debate... withering attack." Well, not quite. Withering attack is 2000 VP candidate Dick Cheney to rival John Edwards about his "undistinguished career." Brawl-like is Rudy Giuliani's "Biden has never run anything but his mouth." Through any reasonable lens, the Democratic debate was hardly brawling or withering, more like firm but deferential. And what was NBC's Tim Russert doing with his Spanish Inquisition impression, fiercely probing the burning issue of... UFOs? His face was practically flushed with the excitement of a major "Gotcha." Can you imagine a fantasy time-warp scene where Lincoln and Douglas face-off against the heat-seeking TV folks? "Congressman Lincoln, Senator Douglas has called you, 'An ambulance chasing shyster who hasn't run anything expect a red light.' In 30 seconds, please."
Just what do these debates really show us -- thoughtful answers to very complex problems? No. Thirty seconds to explain a major healthcare initiative? No. Who's got the best sound bite? Yes. But don't we tend to watch the debates for the same reason we used to like watching the Academy Awards -- for their unpredictability? Somebody says something outrageous, someone streaks across the stage. These debates could provide something the Lincoln-Douglas debates could never do -- a glimpse into the candidates personalities, how they handle the unforeseen. Remember Rick Lazio unexpectedly stalking up to Hillary Clinton's podium in their Senate debate? Or George H.W. Bush looking at his watch in a Bill Clinton debate? Those moments helped the viewer. It showed something about each of those people. But these presidential candidates are so scripted, so memorized, it's hard to get a spontaneous moment, a look into who they really are. Instead of these podium talkfests, how about creating a Reality TV show called "Race for the Prize," an election-season series that pits candidates against each other and puts them in torturous situations like stuck on a Mississippi raft all night with Iran's Ahmadinejad, Israel's Olmert, Russia's Putin and Mike Gravel. Since it's Reality TV, the plot, the lines, and scenes can be pre-scripted, re-shot and highly edited. Even so, isn't there still a better chance to see how these potential leaders handle themselves outside the bubbles of their campaigns? Isn't that what we're basically looking for in a president? It certainly would be much more fun to watch.