Requiem for the “town hall” debate

Without a ton of preparation, the format quickly devolves from substance to spectacle.
A collage layers screenshots from a 1998 town-hall debate between U.S. Senate candidates Russ Feingold and Mark Neuman. A view of a seated crowd from behind is visible, as is a faint outline of another perspective that faces the crowd from the front of the room, and the two candidates standing behind podiums. Between the two candidates is a large sign that reads “We the People Wisconsin.” Also visible are video time stamps. All the elements are filtered through distortion and black-and-white coloration.
Illustration by Scott Gordon, source images via C-SPAN/PBS Wisconsin.

Without a ton of preparation, the format quickly devolves from substance to spectacle.

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

The night of the Russ Feingold / Mark Neuman U.S. Senate candidate debate in 1998, a student from UW-River Falls asked a question of Neuman, the Republican candidate. She asked him about a political action committee (PAC) contribution to his campaign that was under press scrutiny at the time. Neuman claimed that the question was “accidentally set up in this audience,” implying that there was something inappropriate about the student’s well-informed inquiry. 

That made her cry, on camera.

Between sobs, she asked Neuman why any young person would want to be involved in politics only to be treated so disrespectfully by a candidate on live TV. Neuman visibly freaked out. He had just embarrassed a voter who was guilty of nothing more than asking a candidate a legitimate question. A journalist, at least an American one, couldn’t have come back with a comment like that. (Though one of the town hall’s facilitators, WISC-TV anchor Katy Sai, dismissed Neuman’s complaint with a brisk response: “She’s a student! She’s been doing her homework.”) But a citizen could. It was a powerful and revealing town hall moment. 


The executives at CNN are still getting scorched for last week’s CNN Trump town hall. The loudest complaint has been about the audience, a group absolutely drunk on MAGA Kool-Aid. That wasn’t accidental. People at CNN chose the audience to meet the pre-production demand of the town hall guest, Donald Trump. 

In the 1990s, PBS partnered with other Wisconsin media to produce a series of town-hall issue meetings and political debates called “We the People.” This was an exciting project at the time; town halls with citizen involvement were nearly unheard of—at least on television. But producing a town hall format for television is tedious work if done correctly. Over the course of three decades as senior news producer at PBS Wisconsin (a role I retired from in 2021), I produced dozens of them. Some of them were worthy political events that paired the thoughts of informed, politically balanced members of the voting public with the questioning and traffic direction of our journalist moderators. Others were not so good. Having real people in televised political events is a bit of a minefield. 

The “We the People” project actively recruited, screened, and workshopped with members of the public statewide in order to, at the end of that three-step process, have them informed and ready to participate on camera as questioners at a debate. Those three steps required tremendous news organization buy-in due to all the  staff hours that went into the audience work across the months leading up to the event itself. That work included screening for an eventual audience that would represent a balance of party allegiances as well as economic and racial diversity. 

People responded to invitations that we announced on air and in print with our media partners. Once they were screened and selected, active recruitment for participation began. You might think that people would be coming out of the woodwork for an opportunity to ask a question of a U.S. Senate candidate. In reality, not so much. People, especially when they learned more about the time commitment we were asking for, hedged about showing up. 

Participation in an evening’s town hall required a person to show up to an all-day seminar to help folks prepare to be their best on-air. We didn’t write questions for participants (although certain media critics claimed we did). We set up the workshop with guest speakers on issues that were embedded in a given political race: tax experts, public school specialists, national defense wonks, and political scientists from UW-Madison. Before asking Neuman about his PAC contributions during the Feingold/Neuman debate, that young woman attended a day-long workshop that included a session on PACs, because they were a controversial participant in that race. Through mini-lectures that provided nonpartisan context on the issues, and a Q&A that followed, attendees took notes and began to formalize the questions they wanted to pose to the forum participants that night. We journalists role-played as politicians at the end of the day, fielding questions and advising citizens how to sharpen the question so as to reduce wriggle room on the politician’s answer. 

Over the roughly 10-year lifespan of the “We the People” project, well… town halls kind of lost their steam. We started to encounter what we came to call “professional citizens”: people—the same people—who signed up for every one of our events. 

After “We the People,” we experimented with other citizen formats including a State Supreme Court candidate debate where seven citizen questioners sat on the actual State Supreme Court bench and quizzed the candidates below on the courtroom floor. Candidates never liked these formats. That was fine with us. Our media partnership would report on their hesitancy to confirm their participation—and, more importantly, why they were hesitant. What candidate wants to say out loud that they don’t want to come to a debate because a voter is going to ask them a question? Our reporting on their objections to that part of the format almost always resulted in their showing up. 

Perhaps for the best, CNN’s debacle last week may help put an end to the spectacles that town halls have become. I still think there’s symbolic importance in bringing the public into these media events, but without the budget, time, or ethics to produce them right, we’re better off with no citizen questions. The audience would be better instructed to be observers—no cheering. Just watch and be present. That alone makes career politicians nervous.

And so, even with all the feet-to-the-fire interrogation by CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, that town hall was closer to a Jerry Springer episode than a legitimate political event. The CNN-produced audience, and the participation they were granted, is a perfect snapshot of the endless latitude provided to Trump by mainstream media. Last week’s CNN town hall audience is proof that Trump still has unchecked authority over journalism, over how his vocal vomit is spoon-fed to Americans in the hands of the national press. We shouldn’t be upset with Trump and what he said last week; we could have pre-written every word. We should be upset with CNN. And we should say goodbye to town halls forever.

An ode to the best and worst of Madison summers.

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