As of this writing the final presidential debate of the 2020 cycle is scheduled to take place tonight. Whether it will happen or not is still basically a coin toss. In any event I have spotted a serious flaw in the way we conduct political debates that I’d like to explore with you today.
We put the candidates up on stage and have a moderator or small team of moderators try to referee the event. There are a lot of business interests and some logic behind that system.
Networks broadcast the debates and they want to showcase their talent. Therefore the moderator(s) are their star employees. Can you imagine CNN having Chris Wallace or Rachel Maddow moderating a debate that they have the broadcast rights to? Mix the combinations any way you like and neither can I.
The use of a celebrity journalist/commentator helps promote their show/publication, is well known to and has credibility with the audience and the public assumes (most often correctly) that the moderator(s) are knowledgeable in the areas covered in the debate. There is a major problem with this system in that in their day jobs the moderators are dependent on receiving access to the participants they are refereeing.
In some ways it is like a sales rep refereeing a contest between two or more of their largest customers. There is an 80-20 rule in sales that states you make 80% of your income from 20% of your customers. In both retail and wholesale sales I found it to be pretty accurate.
If you are a political reporter/commentator you need access to office holders and candidates if you are to get any scoops.
In a large primary it is somewhat of a symbiotic relationship in that candidates need the free media and reporters need access. When we get down to the general (which most often means two candidates) the dynamics often change. It is very easy for an incumbent – especially if they are favored for reelection – to shut out a journalist they feel is unfriendly. Even in today’s presidential race where it appears President Trump is trailing he is still the president and therefore news for the next several months. At least in the short term access to him is important if you make your living delivering and/or commenting on political news.
If it is apparent the incumbent is going to lose being friendly with the challenger is important because they will be in office shortly and they become the new news.
The major contribution Trump has made to American politics and government is to illustrate imperfections in our system and commercial networks broadcasting debates. Using their stars as moderators is certainly one of them.
I feel debates can have significant value to the voters. It is an opportunity for the candidates to outline their policies and let the voters compare. The flaw seems to lie in the where and how.
Instead of for profit broadcasters we can remove the profit motive by moving the debates to not for profit news/broadcasting organizations like NPR and PBS. Their journalists also are dependent on access so we still have the moderator issue. My suggestion is that we use history or political science professors (i.e. Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia) in their place. They will not be as well known to the audience and selection will have to screen out both the quacks and the bias. However their work and livelihood is not dependent on access so they could challenge and control the participants without worrying about retaliation.
To use a sports analogy there is a playing out of position issue with some journalists. In most of my debate review columns I rate the performance of the moderators. I have been hard on many people I respect as a journalist but they simply didn’t do a good job as a moderator. Most shortstops would make lousy catchers.
Statewide broadcast debates present more of a challenge. I feel it is important that voters – especially the lower information voters – have the opportunity to hear gubernatorial and US Senate candidates’ debate but there are simply less options for broadcast.
I don’t think it is realistic to expect a comprehensive solution in a short article but this is something we collectively need to address. The good news is that we have over two years before the 2024 presidential primary debates are upon us. 2022 Senate debates are a lot closer not to mention three states with gubernatorial races in 2021. The first step in solving a problem is to admit it exists.
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