More Substance in the Presidential Debates
BY MOST accounts, the presidential debate held Sunday night was a better version of the first one the month before. Granting that the debate often bordered on sounding and looking like a schoolyard brawl among the four candidates present, the discussion – or what passed for it – was more substantial, more exciting, and the candidates’ demeanor more revealing of their character or temperament.
The format of the debate is mainly to be credited for this. Unlike in the first debate where three moderators (GMA-7’s Mike Enriquez and Jessica Soho, and Inquirer.Net’s John Nery) took turns asking the candidates questions drawn from fishbowls, the debate Sunday night only had one moderator (TV5 news executive Luchi Cruz Valdez) and a panel of journalists (Ed Lingao and Lourd de Veyra of TV5, Marichu Villanueva and Ana Marie Pamintuan of the Philippine Star, and lawyer Ruphil Banoc of RMN Cebu) who each asked questions that were more intelligent and substantial.
The panel of veteran journalists’ actually asking tough questions lent the debate a lot of gravitas that could not be forced out of a fishbowl. The first question – by Lingao, on the Freedom of Information bill, directed at Senator Grace Poe – set the right tone: that this was going to be a night of probing, hard, uncomfortable questions. Lingao’s second question, this time addressed to Duterte, challenged the mayor’s supposed crime-fighting success, using government statistics that indicate otherwise. That raised the hackles of Duterte, who tried to dismiss and discredit the data.The question by de Veyra on the coconut levy fund also brought to the fore an issue that had long been ignored.
The format allowed each candidate to jump in to rebut each answer, and this was where it became exciting, with some of the candidates showing a testiness that had not been apparent in the fist debate. While it can be argued that this was where the debate turned for the worse by emitting more heat than light, the format revealed aspects of the temperaments and personalities of the candidates for the country’s top post. That the rebuttals overlapped certainly made Valdez’s job more difficult as she tried her best to whip the candidates into line and to stay on topic. In the end, her deft handling of the rhetorical brawl that erupted every now and then helped make the debate more enlightening and engaging.
The panel of expert journalists asking the questions was the debate’s best feature. There is, after all, wisdom in having journalists and media organizations organize the presidential debate – because they’re supposed to know the issues and to know better, and so could ask the important and tough questions. While crowd-sourcing the questions is good so that other non-media stakeholders could weigh in, there is no substitute for knowledgeable and nonpartisan journalists to ask the questions the answers to which the public needs to know.