The televised and Facebooked GOP debate was a disaster. The clear loser of the debates was the media, particularly Fox News and Facebook, for putting together a media event that made a mockery of televised debates. It clearly drew a large audience (over 23 million viewers), and gave some greater national visibility to some of the lesser-known candidates in the race. But these virtues are not enough to compensate for the problems showcased by this spectacle. Commentators have said they thought they were watching a Saturday Night Live spoof of the debates. But these were the real thing and closer to Hunger Games or X Factor than SNL. They include:
Producing a Horse Race
The media like to make elections into a horse race as a means to generate an audience. Nevertheless, this took the metaphor to an entirely higher level. The announcers, the staging, lighting, and build up were all about who will win and lose the race and much less to do with the issues.
The Absence of any Meaningful Debate
It was not a debate. The candidates did not have opportunities to debate issues with one another. This was an obvious challenge from the moment the debates were proposed: How can a debate deal with 17 candidates. Breaking it up into two groups, each too large did not help. More importantly, there was no debate. It was a series of long-winded gotcha questions to make the moderates look clever and tuff and the candidates squirm, and not have sufficient time to adequately respond. It was as if the moderators sought to conduct a series of one-minute David Frost Nixon interviews, but could not and did not succeed.
Much was made of the child’s table for the 7 excluded from the adult table, but the entire debate was childish. The very idea of asking the candidates to raise their hand in response to the moderator’s question was ridiculously childish. Every candidate should have raised their hand, or left the stage. How patronizing and silly, and this was the beginning of the show.
The stars of this program were the moderators and the pundits they asked to praise their work at the end of the debate, and pronounce the winners and losers. The candidates should have been at the center, not the moderators. All the ‘experts’ questioned by the moderators were falling over themselves to praise the moderators’ questions, and play along with the seriousness of this fiasco.
Advertising and Sponsor Bias
The ‘debates’ also showcased Fox News and Facebook. This was all about advertising. Fox News has a reputation for biased news coverage. Facebook has no reputation at all for staging a political debate. The combination was a disaster. Did you notice how a critical question about ‘Google’ and ‘Yahoo!’ did not mention Facebook?
Three Standards for Grading the Televised Debates
On what criteria can we grade the Fox News-Facebook show? To address that, it is worth asking: Why do we want debates, what value do they offer, and why the Fox debates failed to satisfy those needs.
Voters want at least three things out of a debate. They want to know: Where do candidates stand on the issues? Do they have presidential personalities (smart, trustworthy, competent leadership, compassion, integrity, etc.)? And what do other respected individuals and organizations think of them (endorsements, party affiliations, etc.)?
The Fox format certainly didn’t allow the viewers an opportunity to understand and compare the candidates on key issues. Climate change, for example, was never mentioned. Foreign policy was virtually ignored (except immigration). Domestic economic policy was not significantly explored, although it was mentioned by a few. Educational policy was briefly referenced (“Common Core,” states’ rights), but nothing significant emerged. In short, it is doubtful that viewers, after more than two hours of back and forth, came away with any clear sense of where their candidates stood on many of the most important issues facing the nation. Actually, there may be better methods of exploring candidates’ positions on issues — such as text and analysis. But a debate should allow a moderator, or opposing candidates, to challenge a candidate’s position on specific issues, dig into them, and ultimately explain them more clearly to the audience. During the Fox debate, for example, Scott Walker was asked why he would rather let a mother die than sacrifice a fetus to an abortion. That was a powerful question. Not surprisingly, Walker didn’t answer it, and the questioner didn’t follow up or point out that Walker didn’t answer. So the debate failed to raise many significant issues, and it failed to create an opportunity for the viewer to learn candidates’ positions.
Debates may excel at revealing candidates’ personalities: Are they are good speakers? Can they think on their feet? Do they have persuasive answers to difficult questions? Have they thought through their answers intelligently so they are coherent and persuasive? Do they speak with energy and are they persuasive? Do they exhibit leadership qualities, and more? The Fox debate was minimally successful at that for some candidates: It allowed viewers to get a better sense of Trump, for better or worse. It showed the speaking style of many of the candidates. But it was so fragmentary, jumped around so much, and asked two candidates the same question, but then turned to other questions, that it failed almost entirely to give the candidates a chance to show the viewers “who they were.”
Apart from revealing that all the candidates were Republicans, except possibly Trump, it’s not clear that viewers learned anything of the candidates’ supporters.
One might easily conclude, therefore, that this debate, according to the three criteria listed above, should probably receive a grade of D+. Although debates have the potential to enlighten voters, this one certainly failed significantly in that regard.
What can be done?
The news media in one fell swoop seem to have lost the credibility to manage or produce a televised or social media debate. What could be done to salvage this election?
First, any future televised debate must have more involvement of the candidates in the design of the debate format and production. Candidates could not have been involved in staging this Fox News debate, as it is hard to imagine them agreeing to such a terrible arrangement.
Secondly, there is a need to shift debates away from commercial television and social media to avoid this dumbing down of debates into an X Factor spectacle. Some not for profit organizations have led in the development of Internet-based debate platforms in the past, such as the Center for Governmental Studies, with its work on The Democracy Network (DNet), but this would require major foundation funding that could only be assembled in the longer-term. A new debate platform for the Internet could be developed, but in addition to funding, it would require work, creativity, experimentation, a budget sizeable enough to try different ideas, and a willingness to stick it out until it worked, for it to be successful in an age of streaming video. In the meantime, Secretary of State voter information websites could be enlisted to use more up-to-date Internet techniques and applications that would allow candidates to post videos, endorsements, etc. (See “Voter Information in the Digital Age: Grading State Election Websites,” which Tracy Westen co-authored — http://cgs.policyarchive.org) might be a transition. Alternatively, PBS could pioneer some work in this area on its websites.
Thirdly, there might be a case to move away from an emphasis on debates to focus more attention on voters, and opinion leaders among the voters, to inform themselves. With today’s technology, voters can be urged to source their own material, and not look to televised debates to clarify the issues or understand the candidates. Any voter with access to the Internet, whether directly or through a family member or friend, can source their own information. What does candidate x think about issue y? A voter driven process, focused on voters that are motivated to seek information, could inform an electorate in ways far less driven by media entertainment values and formats.
Someone will have to figure out (i) how to cater to the various voter strategies and meet the desires of voters for information in various formats; (ii) figure out how to make money out of online presidential debates; and (iii) promote the new approach enough until it takes hold, without sinking to creating a media circus like that used by Fox News and Facebook for the GOP debates.