Want To Fix the Debates? Shut Down the Trump-Style Theatrics.

The sensationalist, ratings-first format needs to change—and candidates should boycott debates until it does.

Susan J. Douglas September 9, 2019

Democratic presidential candidates argue at the July 30 CNN debate in Detroit. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The ver­dict came in fast and furi­ous: The Demo­c­ra­t­ic debates were a deba­cle” (Poyn­ter Insti­tute), an unmit­i­gat­ed dis­as­ter designed to hype rat­ings” (Wash­ing­ton Post) and fea­tured a smack­down aes­thet­ic” intend­ed to pro­voke dis­cord (New York Times). The CNN mod­er­a­tors were blast­ed for stok­ing divi­sion, using Repub­li­can talk­ing points to goad candidates.

Here’s one thought: Why don’t the Democratic candidates refuse to participate in any more debates until the format is changed?

In his very first ques­tion at the July 30 debate, direct­ed at Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), mod­er­a­tor Jake Tap­per brought up that for­mer Rep. John Delaney (Md.) had called Medicare for All polit­i­cal sui­cide.” The TV cut to a split screen of Sanders and Delaney as Tap­per demand­ed, What do you say to Con­gress­man Delaney?” In case we missed the chal­lenge, the chy­ron blared the same ques­tion. This for­mat — What do you say to X about their attacks on you?” — dom­i­nat­ed the debates.

Mod­er­a­tors do this, of course, to try to build rat­ings. They aim for sound­bites they can use (and attack) the next day, so they can gos­sip about who dissed who, who got in the best zingers” and the like. This super­fi­cial­i­ty has long been a prob­lem, but it’s got­ten much worse since 2016, when Don­ald Trump’s inflam­ma­to­ry, real­i­tyTV approach to pol­i­tics — vul­gar insults, ado­les­cent name-call­ing, ad hominem attacks on oppo­nents — bush­whacked an unpre­pared yet enthralled news media. The cable chan­nels, in par­tic­u­lar, fol­lowed the TV-star candidate’s lead and suc­cumbed to the cat­fight con­ven­tions of celebri­ty jour­nal­ism — who has Trump trashed now, who’s betrayed whom, who’s on Trump’s shit list today? As Van­i­ty Fair not­ed, Trump under­stands the press is essen­tial­ly a sen­sa­tion­al­is­tic enter­prise,” and made the media com­plic­it in a high­ly chore­o­graphed dis­trac­tion.” This lazy and con­t­a­m­i­nat­ing for­mat has fur­ther cor­rupt­ed the debates.

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates should see this spec­ta­cle for what it is: a Trumpian-dri­ven frame that, with its lead­ing, biased gotcha ques­tions, inces­sant inter­rup­tions, and stok­ing of divi­sions, results in a cir­cu­lar fir­ing squad, dam­ag­ing them all. Here’s one thought: Why don’t the Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates refuse to par­tic­i­pate in any more debates until the for­mat is changed?

The first need­ed change is get­ting rid of broad­cast jour­nal­ists as the mod­er­a­tors. Their job is to report break­ing news and pro­duce rat­ings, as well as bur­nish their own celebri­ty, not to illu­mi­nate the sub­stance of pol­i­cy pro­pos­als. Vot­ers, at town halls or online, ask bet­ter, more pol­i­cy-ori­ent­ed ques­tions than preen­ing and self-serv­ing TV news stars. Ques­tions pro­posed by vot­ers to the Open Debate Coali­tion in 2016 eschewed horse race” queries and instead focused on issues like gun safe­ty, mon­ey in pol­i­tics and cli­mate change. Vot­ers’ ques­tions would make the debates more demo­c­ra­t­ic and more infor­ma­tive. Kath­leen Hall Jamieson, a researcher on polit­i­cal cam­paigns, has pro­posed that his­to­ri­ans or retired judges serve as mod­er­a­tors, because they’re not invest­ed in sell­ing con­flict-dri­ven news. We could add to that list pub­lic pol­i­cy schol­ars, polit­i­cal sci­en­tists and activists work­ing in non­prof­its focused on the envi­ron­ment, health­care, women’s rights, racial jus­tice and oth­er impor­tant issues. Per­son­al­ly, I think smart high school and col­lege stu­dents would be great ques­tion­ers, as so many of today’s press­ing issues pow­er­ful­ly affect their futures.

Anoth­er of Jamieson’s pro­pos­als is to get rid of the live audi­ence — remem­ber, there was none in the Nixon-Kennedy debate — elim­i­nat­ing their laugh­ter, applause, boo­ing and oth­er reac­tions, which can stoke can­di­date grand­stand­ing. The Annen­berg Pub­lic Pol­i­cy Cen­ter has found that stu­dio audi­ence respons­es cue the home audi­ence reac­tions and can affect the public’s assess­ments of candidates.

Yet anoth­er pro­pos­al, though intend­ed for gen­er­al elec­tion debates, could improve pri­ma­ry debates as well. Intel­li­gence Squared U.S., a non­par­ti­san group that spon­sors debates on press­ing issues, advo­cates for the Oxford style of debate in which a series of motions is put for­ward — for exam­ple, that the Unit­ed States should tran­si­tion to a sin­gle-pay­er, Medicare-for-all health sys­tem — and then each can­di­date argues for or against it with lim­it­ed mod­er­a­tor inter­rup­tion. Then there is time for rebut­tal, a clos­ing state­ment and on to the next motion. And if any­one talks out of turn — why not just cut the mic?

Broad­cast and cable TV do have an oblig­a­tion to air these debates. But with their prof­it-dri­ven ded­i­ca­tion to sen­sa­tion­al­ist enter­tain­ment val­ues, they are the last ones who should be fram­ing or mod­er­at­ing what we need to learn from and about the can­di­dates, espe­cial­ly at this time of nation­al peril.

Susan J. Dou­glas is a pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan and a senior edi­tor at In These Times. Her forth­com­ing book is In Our Prime: How Old­er Women Are Rein­vent­ing the Road Ahead..
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