Debating the West Wing Debate

The West Wing presidential debate between Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits (do their characters’ names matter?) is still genertaing some discussion, with several TV critics complaining about the blurring of boundaries between enetratinment and news. Howard Kurtz’s still-addictive Media Notes points towards the CBS News blog, Public Eye, which implies that NBC may have “crossed the line” by using real-life news anchor Forrest Sawyer and by using an NBC news logo (or “bug”) at the bottom right corner of the screen (imagine, a CBS blog being critical of NBC). They cite Steve Safran’s Lost Remote post about the show (good discussion in the comments) as well as the New York Post’s Adam Buckman.

In my original post, I acknowledged some initial confusion as I figured out what was going on. I mentally worked through the visual and verbal cues I had been given–recognizing Alda and Smits, hearing liberal Alda speak in Republican talking points, noting that it was ostensibly a “presidential” debate when no presidential elections are scheduled until 2008, etc–before placing the show in the context of the series. Instead of seeing these visual cues as blurring an already confused boundary between news and entertainment, isn’t it more productive to see the episode as pointing to the ways in which “debate” in our country is already manufactured. Critics, including Beckman and Doug Elfman of the Chicago Sun-Times, complain about the “content” of the debate, but this episode merely illustrates how the conventions of the debate format are already limited.

I will be teaching Daniel Boorstin’s discusion of pseudo-events in my senior seminar this week, and it’s intriguing to think about presidential debates as “pseudo-events,” designed to allow candidates to state well-worn talking points, at least in their curent televisual incarnation. In fact, Boorstin identifies the Nixon-JFK debate as a classic example of a pseudo-event. Thus, by using an NBC news logo, the show required that I focus on other ways in which “debate” and “news” are constructed on the TV screen. Long blog entry short: I’m not troubled by the use of the NBC bug or Forrest Swayer’s participation on the show. In fact, I think their presence forces us to rethink the constructions of authenticity that accompany news coverage of presiential debates in the first place.


  1. Lyss Said,

    November 8, 2005 @ 3:26 pm

    I should add that my roommate made a good point (as I rewatched the show with him) about how the presidential seal was absent from the set and from the graphics.

  2. Chuck Said,

    November 8, 2005 @ 4:02 pm

    Good point. I think there were plenty of clues to indicate that it was a performance, but I also liked the initial “semantic disorder” (borrowing a phrase from Dick Hebdige) represented by Alda and Santos impersonating a debate using the tropes commonly associated with the news.

  3. Scot Said,

    November 9, 2005 @ 9:28 am

    Great post. I think you’re right on about how the episode works to foreground the constructedness/artificiality of “actual” presidential debates, despite Alda’s attempt early in the episode to transgress the established debate rules and boundaries. In this sense, you have to wonder why some are so quick to criticize a fictionalized/staged debate…This was an unsettling episode in many ways, and I think we need to ask why that’s the case.

    And for the record, Alda’s got mad improv skills over Smits.

  4. Chuck Said,

    November 9, 2005 @ 10:40 am

    Thanks. I think the episode did make some people uncomfortable at the fictionalization of debate. One of the questions worth asking: does the fictionalization call attention to the degree to which Smits and Alda’s positions themselves fictional or constructed?

    And oh yeah, Alda had Smits beat hands down on improv skills.

  5. Steve Safran Said,

    November 9, 2005 @ 12:36 pm

    Thanks for the shoutout! Good debate.

  6. Chuck Said,

    November 9, 2005 @ 12:41 pm

    Hey, Steve, I enjoy Lost Remote quite a bit. It’s a great resource for media news and critique.

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