The roles at a political debate are simple and well-defined.
The moderator asks the questions. The candidates answer them. The audience reacts respectfully.
A slight groan, some mild applause, a rolling of the eyes can all be expected when an audience is present. Most any other outburst from the public can be crossing the line of what is acceptable behavior.
Supporters of Republican challenger Lee Zeldin obliterated that line at last week’s 1st District Congressional debate hosted by East End Local Media Corp. at Polish Hall in Riverhead.
At several points during the hour-plus event, specifically when Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) faulted Tea Party members in Congress for much of the gridlock in Washington, the debate was derailed by audience members shouting at him.
“You’re a liar!” yelled one attendee after Mr. Bishop said, “Compromise has become a four-letter word in Washington under Tea Party control.”
“You have the blood of a lot of innocent babies on your hands,” the audience member continued.
After moderator Denise Civiletti, co-publisher of East End Local’s two websites, asked the man to leave, he marched to the back of the room. For a moment, it appeared he had left. But then he reappeared, receiving several pats on the back from smiling Riverhead GOP leader Mason Haas.
When asked by Ms. Civiletti to tell his supporters to quiet down, Mr. Zeldin clammed up.
Scenes like this make local media outlets wonder if it’s even worth hosting public debates for congressional races.
We don’t believe Mr. Zeldin’s supporters even realize they embarrassed themselves that night, because their hubris would never allow them to believe that. And of course we’d write that their candidate felt shame if we hadn’t watched him smirk his way through it all.
In the instant-gratification era of social media and online message boards, it’s easy to understand why some people might think it’s OK for audience members to interrupt a formal political debate. After all, everyone is so used to shoving their opinions down total strangers’ throats 24 hours a day, seven days per week, with no accountability.
But GOP supporters could have better served their candidate last week by keeping their mouths shut during the debate, allowing the candidate to do his own talking. Instead, they made a mockery of the process — and made Mr. Zeldin look weak for failing to stop it.