Presidential debate 'not good form,' but good entertainment – analyst

MANILA, Philippines – The "improved" format of the second presidential debate held in Cebu City on Sunday, March 20, drew high expectations, as candidates had more time to answer questions and engage each other on various policy issues.

The town hall format of the debate allowed candidates to interrupt each other and go on off-tangent attacks that shifted the discussion away from debate topics, but made for good entertainment, according to analyst and communications expert Clarissa David.

"It's kind of a wild, wild west, but it's fun. It's fun in that sense because there’s a lot of attacking, there’s a lot of freedom to really just butt in there and interrupt. Maybe it’s not good debate form but it certainly makes for good entertainment and a lot of substance," David said. (READ: #AnimatED: Comelec Debate 2, A for Entertainment)

The debate, aired live on TV5, had two segments. The first segment featured panelists, mostly journalists, asking questions to specific candidates who were then given two minutes to respond. Other candidates were allowed to present their rebuttals.

But the exchange among candidates often veered away from the debate topics, and turned into attacks against their rivals' competence and track records.

A word war erupted between Senator Grace Poe and Vice President Jejomar Binay in the first part of the debate, on the topic of the Freedom of Information Bill. Poe asked about Binay's unwillingness to answer corruption allegations against him, while the Vice President countered that Poe was not a "true" Filipino and was "ashamed" of her citizenship. (READ: Poe, Binay face off on rule of law, corruption, citizenship)

Despite the many off-tangent exchanges, some candidates were able to provide "fact-driven" answers and arguments on the debate topics, according to Rappler's panel of adjudicators.

For David, the candidates' different approaches and strategies in the way they portrayed themselves in the debate made the round interesting.

"There are candidates who are far from falling over themselves, trying to give us many facts and figures as possible, and you can see that they’re trying to make themselves appear very knowledgeable and be able to pull things out of the air – they know their history, they know what the statistics are," she said.

"But then you have candidates who are really looking for ways to give a punch line. These are different approaches to the debate so it’ll be interesting what the next round’s going to look like," she added.

Different sets of info

The second presidential debate started off on a confusing note: it was delayed by an hour and a half, and it was at first unclear what was causing it.

On online websites and social media, reports were coming in that a disagreement over whether or not the Vice President can bring notes to the debate was causing the delay. But TV5's own television feed showed only the anchors providing pre-debate commentary and apologizing for the delay.

The anchors later mentioned the cause of the delay, but did not provide updates on what was happening on the ground. (READ: #PiliPinasDeLate? Delayed Cebu debate stirs confusion on social media)

David said that viewers got different sets of information based on the medium they were monitoring.

On television, she said, viewers only got to see the actual debate. But on social media, viewers got to know what happened behind the scenes based on commentary from supporters and spokespersons of the various camps.

"If you’re looking at Twitter and Facebook, you’re seeing the back story, you’re seeing that Binay’s gonna walk out, he was coming back, they were fighting inside, there were jokes being thrown around. But if you were just watching TV, this is completely outside of what you’re able to see," she said.

David said voters who were on Twitter were able to see aspects of the character of "Binay and Mar Roxas and everybody involved in all of this."

"Whereas if you’re only watching television, you only see the actual debate, so you’re operating on a different side of information....It's interesting to see how voters will react differently depending on what kind of information they have," she said.

The third and final presidential debate will be held in Pangasinan on April 24. – Rappler.com