Can the Presidential Debate Format Be Un-Wrecked?

After the most recent presidential candidate debate, it is apparent to almost everyone that the journalistic moderation of presidential debates is damaging our civic process.  As a debate professional, I have struggled with the American presidential debate process directly since 1992.  I have written and argued with some vehemence that we must reform the debates – especially in relation to the moderators. 

Journalists are understandably reluctant to give up their gateway control of the presidential political process.  Journalists believe that their role is legitimate because as members of a free press, they should and must interrogate candidates about their beliefs, behaviors, and potential fitness for public office.

Yet the journalistic right of interrogation is damaging the civic practice of debate in serous ways that cannot remain unchallenged.  Moderators should serve the role of facilitating debate, not destroying it, as we saw in recent debates – and frankly in many presidential debates through history.  Fixing this process will be good not only for public debates, but also for journalism.

To fix the lack of moderators who moderate, we need to identify the problematic causes:

1. Journalists are overwhelmingly opposed to Republicans and deeply disturbed by conservatives.  The ongoing effort to pretend that this is not the case is harming our effort to reform the process.

Journalist surveys demonstrate this.  Public surveys about public perception of the media demonstrate this.  The practice of the past four debates demonstrates this.  Anderson Cooper essentially conceded to the demands of Bernie Sanders that Hillary Clinton not be asked any further questions about her private email server.

In 2004, I had an excellent academic colleague in journalism in Ohio who asked me to come to her class on journalism and the election because she felt she had too strong of a bias for Democrats.  We are good friends, and I agreed to try to provide a balanced discussion of controversies in 2004.  She asked me in advance of class to read all of the essays her 24 student wrote as election editorials.  I told the class that the editorials were excellent, well-researched, and well-argued.  I asked:  "Did you know that 23 of you wrote editorials favoring John Kerry, and one of you wrote and editorial supporting Ralph Nader?"  They looked around in stunned silence.  They apparently thought "someone" would write a pro-Bush editorial, but no one did.  I used that to illustrate the depth of ideology that has overtaken journalistic practice.

Since at least Watergate and Vietnam, journalism is loosely predicated on the idea that Republicans abuse public trust and Democrats seek to restore it.  My communication colleague Jim Kuypers has written an excellent interrogation of the problem.  This problem makes the current journalistic moderation of debates absurd.

2. The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is a collection of academics, journalists, and the two major parties.  It was recently discovered that President Bill Clinton is part of the CPD – even though Hillary is a part of the current campaign.  Neither Bush president has been asked to serve.  This is not surprising.

The CPD makes the important decisions regarding the head to head debates that will take place in October 2016.  Almost none of these four institutions wants conservatives to be a part of the debate conversation in America.  In 2012, the CPD saw fit to exclude Fox News as a source of media moderators.  In 2015, Fox news is at war with Donald Trump over the Megyn Kelly moderator struggle in debate one.

As an academic myself, I have to clarify that academia does not give fair consideration to Republican points of view.  That is even less true of conservative points of view.  As a doctoral student, I recall working with other graduate students who were doing the focus group work that would select topics for the presidential debates in 1992.  I mentioned to a colleague that I could not believe that abortion did not make the public's top ten list of important issues for that year.  He smiled and said, "Of course it did.  But we don't want our candidate to talk about that issue."  He went on to work in the Clinton White House the next year.

That was my first initiation into the reality that as a Ph.D. in communication, I was part of a club dedicated to helping the DNC defeat the RNC.

The impartial third party in this bipartisan commission is academia – and it is not impartial.  How can anyone think that it is reasonable and fair to either Republicans or conservatives?  Professors decide what is fair in the American presidential debating process.  Academia's biases are well-documented by political contribution patterns, student surveys, and surveys of sentiments among faculty.  This is part of the mystery about why the Republicans seem to always come out on the short end of the stick in the "bipartisan" CPD.

3. The problems are not problems of partisanship.  There is a tendency to believe that groups are "too liberal" or that conservatives are "too right-wing."  In reality, these problems are rooted in preferences for institutions over individuals.  The major media makes considerable profits on the presidential debates and serving as a moderator is a major career boost.  For academia, considerable influence and status are attached both to hosting and creating formats for the debates.  The town hall debates created in 1992 foster the illusion that the public is allowed to influence this process with its individual questions.  But the individuals who get to ask questions are selected by media moderators.  The moderators know and require that individuals reveal their questions in advance to the moderator.  It is sad to think anyone is fooled by this shell game. 

4. Campaigns are too fearful that the media will boycott their events.  This is a field of dreams: build a debate, and they will come.  The public wants this more than almost anything else as a basis for political reform in the United States.  If it were possible to organize competing points of view on a variety of American issues into public-forum debate events, it would be revolutionary to the propaganda style of politics currently dominating our public sphere.  We are living in a Wizard of Oz-like public sphere, where the media offers itself as the wizard.  Campaigns are foolish to believe they cannot organize these events.

5. The Democratic presidential candidate debate was a fraud.  The CNN debate was designed to institutionalize the maxim that Hillary Clinton should not have to debate her presumption to be the nominee.  Her principal rival, Bernie Sanders, was eager early in the "debate" to proclaim that he was tired of hearing about her emails.  He, the Democratic crowd, and Anderson Cooper agreed.  That is the end of the issue, and Hillary is deemed the victor and champion over all dissent surrounding her role in the cover-ups surrounding Benghazi and the brutal slaughter of an American ambassador and three Americans who tried to save him.  No one – including the families of the victims – has suffered as much as Hillary Clinton has.

It is important to recall that the primary awareness about moderator controversies began with Candy Crowley's intervention in the 2012 debates, in order to help cover for the Obama administration shortly after the terrorist attack took place.  The vice chairwoman of the DNC warned the public that the CNN debate and larger DNC process were not real debate and were designed to help Hillary secure the nomination.  For that revelation, she was removed from attendance at the event – again confirming the DNC's view of basic civil rights such as free speech.

Martin O' Malley also complained about the DNC debate process and its inherent unfairness.  Jim Webb was so disillusioned and critical of the debate that he immediately quit his run as a democratic nominee and now seeks a third-party nomination to the presidency.  The media and the DNC essentially agreed that losing Webb was good – he was impeding the party's move farther to the left.  Unlike the Republicans, the media does not make media darlings out of Democrats who appear to be moderate leftists.  Lincoln Chafee also quit his run after the debate. 

6. Both parties assume that in order for a debate to take place, moderators must ask the candidates questions.  That is absolutely a faulty assumption.  Most debates do not have such a moderator role.  Abe Lincoln and Stephen Douglas did not have such a moderator.  Candidates could consult with debate experts and build their own debates around understood controversies.  Campaigns could agree to a resolution – e.g., Flat taxes are the best way to reform the tax code – and candidates could choose sides to the debate.  Candidates could have cross-examination periods, where they ask questions of their opponents for one to three minutes. 

I have outlined solutions to these problems elsewhere.  Essentially, moderators need to become invisible agents of enforcement who ensure that candidates get equal time.  Cross-examination periods should be granted to candidates, not journalists.  Candidates could ask one another questions for short, controlled periods of time.  The topics of the debates could be agreed to by two campaigns with legitimate differences of opinion on an issue.

It is also important to allow as much as possible one-on-one candidate debates.  Tournament style would allow candidates to have eight preliminary debates and then qualify for elimination round debates based on their win/loss records.  Judges for debates could be assigned by judge preference systems controlled by the campaigns – not the media.

It would be in the best interest of everyone involved to move toward debates that resemble the actual Lincoln-Douglas debates of the 19th century – instead of the current news media distorting spectacles they are today. 

Ben Voth is an associate professor of communication studies and director of debate and speech programs at Southern Methodist University.  He is an adviser for the Bush Institute and the Coolidge Foundation debate fellow.

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