So why did the media agree to it? Well i certainly wasn't a part of the discussion, but i presume there was a big helping of "if you don't do it our way we'll take our ball and go home" from the Republicans.
Which makes me ask, has the media learned _nothing_ from the past couple weeks, and specifically from the first debate? McCain "suspended" his campaign because of the economy disaster and said he didn't think they should have the already scheduled debate as long as the crisis was going on. Well Obama said he was going to show up for the debate whether McCain was there or not, and the media said they were going to broadcast the debate whether McCain was there or not, and the american people said WTF? we want a debate! Needless to say when faced with the prospect of Obama getting an hour and a half of free TV time across multiple networks McCain folded like a house of cards.
So did the media really think that if they had said "screw you guys, the VP debate will be the same format as first presidential debate just like we originally planned and Palin can show up or not" that the Republicans would have dared to refuse? And if they'd made the challenge publicly in order to build up the hype it's entirely possible that the VP debates could have gotten even higher ratings than the astronomical ones it actually did.
Of course that then brings to my mind the question, could the media declare "we're going to have a debate on personal attacks, you guys can show up or not, as you wish" and get both of them to show up?
I don't know how the details would work exactly but in general it would probably be something along the lines of each candidate making a list of the unfair attacks against them that they wanted to discredit, and a list of issues they thought the other candidate ought to have to address. If the lists got too long i guess the moderators would have to pare them down or something. Then both sets of questions would be published. The political intent of that would be so that each candidate would have time to deal with the issues, this would be a debate where being well prepared was essential, and since the list would be pre-published it would discourage surprise attacks during the debate itself. However the media could use it to drum up interest in the debate.
I imagine the debate would work something like moderator asks question of "defendant," they give their defense, the other candidate gets a chance to counter the defense if they want, the first candidate then gets a chance to respond to the response if they want, then they go on to the next question. I've never actually done debate, so maybe there's some better system, but you ideally want to avoid as much as possible the infinite loops of responses that they've gotten into for the past three debates.
So would either candidate be willing to give the other an hour and a half of free air time in order to avoid some tough questions? Would airing out all the dirty laundry and trying to shine a little truth on it actually be beneficial to the process? Or would it just muddy the waters even more?