October 6, 2015

The Real Losers of the 2016 Presidential Debates

Carly Fiorina by Gage Skidmore 2When I tune into a presidential debate, I do so because I am interested in learning about the various candidates. I want to see how they present themselves, and I'd like to hear something about their position on the relevant issues.

In many debates, there is also an undeniable aspect of entertainment. Ross Perot comes to mind, as does Rick Perry's infamous blunder or the spectacle of candidates raising their hands to indicate that they did not believe in evolution during one of the Republican primary debates last election season. And this year, there is of course Donald Trump. There is no question that these debates can be entertaining, but my primary interest in watching them is still informational. I'm seeking to learn more about the candidates.

One of the things that stood out to me about the first two Republican presidential debates of 2016 had little to do with any of the candidates or the issues they discussed and instead involved the moderators. Both Fox and CNN seemed to be doing everything in their power to goad the candidates into insulting each other. This approach to moderation reminded me far too much of bad reality TV and made the debates far less informative than any I can recall.

In both debates, candidates were repeatedly reminded of something negative one of their opponents had said about them prior to the debate and then invited to respond. If the candidate did not take the bait and deliver a response the moderator found sufficiently insulting, the invitation was sometimes extended again.

It can be interesting and relevant when conflict emerges spontaneously during a debate because candidates disagree strongly on issues about which they are passionate. This contrived fishing for conflict was neither interesting nor relevant; it was an unwelcome distraction. The only possible motivation I can identify for this approach was that the moderators were aiming to maximize conflict between candidates, ideally reaching the point of name calling and the sort of brief verbal jabs that would look good on the networks' teasers, blog posts, YouTube videos, and so on. The goal of having candidates engage in a civil debate of the relevant issues for the purpose of informing the voting public was almost completely absent. In its place was what appeared to be the goal of entertainment, heightened conflict, and presumably larger ratings.

Many of us enjoy watching debates and weighing in afterward about the winners and losers. Reasonable people can certainly disagree about which candidate turned in the strongest performance in the first two debates (hint: it was Trump), but I don't think any of the Republican candidates lost as badly as the audience did thanks to this appallingly bad approach to debate moderation.

It seems to me that the moderators and others who select the questions and debate format have abandoned even the pretense of informing voters and are instead seeking to manufacture conflict for entertainment and ratings. Given that we have seen these trends for some time on all the major television news channels, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.