America’s Flawed Televised Primary Debates: Three Nonpartisan Explanations

CNBC was the object of heated criticism of the way in which their GOP primary debate was moderated. During and after the debate, moderators were ridiculed for asking ‘gotcha’ questions and not focusing on the issues. CNN presenters suggested that such criticism was unfair, since the CNN and Fox News orchestrated debates had asked similar questions. Indeed, all three media enterprises suffered from very similar problems in the way the debates were managed and moderated. [For instance, see my blog with Tracy Westen, grading of the first Fox News debate.]

US Televised Presidential Primary Debates 2015
US Televised Presidential Primary Debates 2015

The central problem was a focus on questions that might be okay in an interview for television, but not for a debate. Rather than asking questions that enabled the candidates to debate with one another over their policy positions, the questions sought to catch each respective candidate off-guard with a question that challenged them to explain a critical observation surfaced by the interviewer. Many were indeed gotcha questions, but these were the focus of all the debates. Many others were just silly, such as the very first question asked in the CNBC debate that pushed each candidate to identify their major weakness. That is of course a standard interview question for entry-level job candidates, which most job applicants are well coached to avoid, as each presidential candidate did. But even addressing such a silly question belittles the candidates.

This was particularly problematic in the CNBC debate for two reasons. First, the candidates and their handlers had been experiencing this treatment over the course of the previous debates, so they must have begun to realize how the manner of questioning was undermining their credibility and failing to focus on the issues. It is true that candidates themselves are often adverse to clearly taking positions on policy questions. It is one way to lose as well as gain support. But policy differences are what a debate should seek to uncover. Secondly, the candidates and audience was set up to expect this debate to focus on issues in finance and business. Finally, we were told, policy issues would be the center of attention. This was not the case.

Why did the moderators fail to address the issues?

The major reason given by most candidates focused on a partisan, liberal bias of the media, which led them to attack the Republican candidates. I believe this explanation misses the mark. Let me suggest several other more plausible arguments.

First, it is not clear that the moderators really understand how to ask debate questions. Even when challenged on the questions, most of the media commentators defended themselves, saying that they asked ‘tough questions’ of all candidates. They seemed focused on not asking a question that would be easy for a candidate to easily respond with a prepared response. But the serious complaints were not about moderators asking tough questions. The moderators did not even understand the criticism being levelled on them. They seldom defended the style of questions, which seemed oriented to one-on-one personal interviews. The debates became a set of serial personal interviews, occasionally asking more than one candidate to answer or respond. Instead, they should come up with tough questions that will generate a debate among the candidates, such as around the budget, civil rights, or foreign policy. These questions were few and far between. 

Secondly, and related to this propensity for one-on-one interview questions, was an apparently clear effort for interviewers to impress their peers. How did the interviewers look and sound during the debates, was probably more important than how the candidates differentiated themselves on the issues. Note how many reviews of the debates focused on this or that moderator, as opposed to the candidates. This was as much about how many minutes does each moderator garner, as about the time allotted to each candidate. 

Thirdly, and related to this, is the media ratings game. Inadvertently, as the moderators prepared for the debates with their colleagues, you can imagine them rejecting various policy-oriented questions as too complex, or not that interesting to their imagined audience. In contrast, a simple question like ‘What is your major weakness?’ is easily understood and suspenseful. So the questions that would be more likely to engage an audience accustomed to game shows and reality TV get prioritized and those that are too policy oriented get shelved. The outcome was not a debate, but an entertaining three-ring circus, and one that successfully gained a huge viewership, more than the world series games that CNBC imagined itself to be in competition for viewers. This was more about generating ratings, than ensuring that viewers gained an understanding of how candidates stood on the issues.  

 

I’m not sure this is a case of the voters getting the candidates they deserve, as much as the viewers getting the moderators they deserve. This is not so much the outcome of a imagined partisan bias of the media as it is about a lack of professionalism (not even understanding the aim of a ‘debate’ v an interview), appealing to peers, and scoring high in the media ratings.

Grading the Fox News-Facebook GOP Presidential Debate Spectacle by Bill Dutton and Tracy Westen

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.

Childish Antics

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.

Moderator-Pundit Centric

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.)?

Issues

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.

Personalities

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.”

Endorsements

Apart from revealing that all the candidates were Republicans, except possibly Trump, it’s not clear that viewers learned anything of the candidates’ supporters.

The Grade

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.