The Manila Times : Are pre-election presidential debates and interviews still relevant?

8 February 2022

By Antonio Contreras | The Manila Times

MANY people are making a lot of noise about the absence of the leading presidential candidate and survey frontrunner Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in the interviews conducted by Jessica Soho at GMA 7 and in the forum organized by the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP).

It didn't help that Marcos declined Soho's invitation because of her alleged bias against his family. While scheduling conflict was cited by the Marcos camp for his failure to attend the KBP event, social media was abuzz with chatter about the fact that he opted to attend the taping of the magazine talk show of Korina Sanchez, a portion of which was devoted to him showing off his cooking skills.

It did not help that people were now alleging that Marcos may have actually ditched the KBP in favor of Sanchez, who revealed that it was the camp of Marcos that set the schedule for the taping. People were having a field day, taking note that Marcos opted to appear in a "cooking show" (though it was not the nature of Sanchez's show, to be fair) instead of the KBP forum.

And yet, it is also apparent that those who make an issue of Marcos' disappearances in these two events (he participated in an interview with Boy Abunda and in the presidential job interviews sponsored by DZRH and this paper) are mainly those who are not voting for him. His loyal supporters, on the other hand, even defend him for such absences.

Debates and interviews of candidates are ideally staged to enable voters to know them and their platforms better. It is hoped that these can aid voters in making an informed decision on who to choose during election day. Thus, failure by any candidate to attend these events can handicap them, and hurt their chances of getting elected.

However, with the broadening of the information landscape through which candidates can communicate to voters, which now includes various new media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and YouTube, the value of televised debates and interviews with candidates has also been diminished. The traditional platforms for campaigning have ceded a lot of ground to the digital and the virtual. Even traditional campaign ads have now been replaced by more participatory and grounded communication pathways that utilize micro-bloggers and influencers performing the campaign in FB live, YouTube vlogs and TikTok videos.

Thus, the centrality of radio and TV debates and interviews as the core of political discourse during election campaigns is eroded. But if there is one major factor that can explain the decline in the usefulness of these traditional platforms, it is centered on the erosion of their ability to influence voters and determine the outcome of elections.

It is now easy for leading candidates like Marcos to abstain from debates and interviews, and become more selective in choosing which platforms to use to communicate. This is because their absence or presence no longer matters to voters, many of whom have already made up their minds and are now firm in their political preferences.

Debates and interviews matter only to people who are still undecided, or are still open to changing their minds. They however lose their relevance in terms of influencing minds if people's preferences are already immovable that they have become like birds burying their heads in the political sand. The current electoral landscape appears to be configured in such a way that voters have already made up their minds, that only very few are open to change these, and even fewer are undecided and have not yet chosen their preferred candidates.

This is the tragedy that has befallen our politics. We have people who only see the bad actions and words of candidates they dislike, and would never grant them the benefit of the doubt. Yet, they only see the good actions of their preferred candidates. We see these in how they spin the performance in the debates and interviews of the candidates, where they sing the praises of and rationalize even the worst performance of their candidates, while they bash and troll even the best performance of rival candidates.

It is indeed sad to note that those who make a lot of noise about the absence of Marcos in the interview of Soho and the KBP-sponsored forum are the people who are not voting for him, and would not give him a fair hearing with an open mind. These are people whose disappointment stems not from the fact that Marcos denied them the opportunity to learn about his platform. The fact that there was no viral outcry when Manila Mayor Francisco Domagoso failed to attend the DZRH-The Manila Times interviews meant that these people are not actually concerned about absences in debates and interviews. Instead, they are frustrated and lash out because Marcos denied them the opportunity to bash and troll him.

Only children behave this way under normal circumstances, but now it has become the behavior of adults with infantile political predispositions. It is not surprising that leading candidates would prefer to protect their voter base whose members would not care if they miss these events, instead of exposing themselves to a hostile crowd that will never give them a fair hearing.

The only way we can restore the real value of debates between and interviews of candidates is when we grow up as voters, and when we enlarge the rational middle of the electorate. But in this world of digitized politics subsisting on algorithms that only deepen confirmation bias and widen the size of echo chambers, the middle ground has practically vanished.

The challenge is how to get away from this predicament. We cannot give up. We should not give up, simply because the alternative would be a political future where political discourse is only as good as the number of likes and shares on Facebook, and not on issues and platforms.