We Need Real Presidential Debates, Not Media Circus Shows

Two presidential “debates” down, and many more to go before we get to the end of the 2016 presidential election process. Break out the popcorn, because what’s being called “debates” is far more like a show, and bears very little resemblance to the cogent policy discussions and rhetorical arguments necessary to qualify as a true “debate.” Instead, it’s all about the applause line and the sound bite. Though we’ve only seen the Republicans go at it up to this point, not to worry, when the Democrats take the stage in Las Vegas on Oct. 13, it will be the same.

That’s where we, the people, stand in terms of the various concoctions the Republican Party, Democratic Party, and various media have stirred into the cauldron of silliness that is the 2016 presidential election process.

To date, a pair of (four, if you count the undercards separately) GOP “debates” has played out for us on television. Consider them the “appetizers” of the debate season. Between October and March, 15 additional live sparring matches are scheduled (nine between the various Republican candidates, six between Democrats), plus four next fall (three presidential, one vice presidential).

The purpose of these forums is purportedly to allow voters to gain valuable information about each of the hopefuls seeking to be the next commander-in-chief. This is an admirable quest; we would love to learn far more detailed ideas about dealing with important topics, ranging from the economy to ISIS, healthcare to education, immigration to climate change. But what has been presented thus far has been anything but enlightening, at least in terms of viable, legitimate issues that should be openly discussed. What has been given to us has been less-than-satisfying in terms of solutions to difficult problems we face here in the United States.

In a 48-page report released in advance of the 2016 election season, the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center working group laid out a series of suggestions to improve presidential debates. Part of the problem, according to group organizer Kathleen Hall Jamieson, is with the way the media both set up these forums and let them play out. “Right now, reporters are in a very difficult situation, because they’re trying to be traditional reporters, and they are trying to moderate a debate,” Jamieson explained. “And as a result, we get joint press conferences. We’re not really getting the debate. And if the moderator tries to follow up, the moderator is perceived to be unfair, and sometimes the moderator is unfair.”

Thus, these “debates” are not really debates. This is because true debates are more formalized, with a more-structured timeframe — and there would not be a moderator. Instead, we are given public platforms; open forums where the various talking heads are for the most part preaching from the same philosophical background to the same eager choir. To be a legitimate debate, the various speakers should be taking up different positions on the same questions, not responding to questions tailored to each candidate individually.

The Annenberg group also suggested eliminating the live audience as part of the presentation. “As our research shows, if you have an audience that cheers or jeers or engages in any kind of heckling behavior, you can affect the outcome of the debate,” Jamieson explained.

We encourage the Commission on Presidential Debates to take the Annenberg study seriously, as a way to try and bring some much-needed legitimacy to the presidential debate model. We also urge the commission to boldly go where many area high schools have, and are, going — that is, review the format incorporated by area high school debate programs, which offer students taking opposite sides on a central question and presenting sound logic, theory and empirical evidence to back up their positions. Talk to individuals with the National Speech & Debate Association, the nation’s largest high school debate organization. Talk to the coaches at our local high schools, or even some of the most experienced debaters on these squads. Then, maybe, we can leave the popcorn behind.