Debates Are Ridiculous; Let’s Move On

Associated Press/Pool-Win McNamee – Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama answer a question during the third presidential debate at Lynn University, Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla. (AP Photo/Pool-Win McNamee)

A half century ago, the idea of televising a debate between two Presidential candidates was breakthrough thinking. Beginning in 2016, I think we can use our new and emerging media to do a better job, and, presumably, to choose our new leader with greater insight, wisdom, and knowledge.

Let’s begin with some pre-reading materials. During the primary process, each candidate for president should be required to complete and submit a job application. The application should require work history, evidence of compliance with laws (for example, age and place of birth), and so on. Prior to each party’s national convention, each candidate should be required to clearly present his or her platform, in detail, by category, complete with data and factual references (given the dynamic nature of our economy and such, each candidate may revise this document at pre-appointed intervals). Then, each candidate should be required to present the platform by speaking directly to the American public, on television, without interruption. If we’re clever, I’m sure we can come up with a web-based extension of the written and televised presentation. With this mechanism in place, I can easily research where each candidate stands on, say, Syria, or health care. Of course, the people ought to have some digital means of asking questions, and the candidates should provide some reasonable means of answering their questions.

Next up, let’s change our rules regarding the use of television advertising. Whether by law or by policy, candidates should be required to use their commercial airtime to explain their own views, and not to criticize or attack the other candidate (this higher standard should be applied to all elections, at least on television commercials where stations often set policies with regard to acceptable material).

With all of that in place, let’s rethink the debate. Running a grudge match is a waste of everybody’s time, and so is allowing candidates to drift from the questions to their own message points. Candidates are welcome to speechify, but that’s not the purpose of the debates. Instead, I would either eliminate the debates and replace them with one-on-one conversations with everyday people and vetted journalists, or reformat them entirely. Last night’s Bob Schieffer format stopped the candidates from moving around and nearly slugging one another. That’s a start. A quiet, reasoned conversation; mostly, closeups of each candidate so we can study their faces; a journalist who asks the questions and is not overwhelmed by the power of candidates to disobey the rules–this format provides a better opportunity to study the candidates and their presentations. And let’s not call it a debate, or think of it as debate, because we should discourage the unseemly role modeling by potential leaders of the free world. There should be no winner or loser. Instead, the debate ought to be a skillfully moderated conversation by people, each of who believes that he or she can successfully lead the nation and play a very significant role on the world stage. That’s enough for me.

But there’s a piece missing: verification of facts. I’m not very interested in what the network’s commentators have to say about who “won” because the debate should not be reduced to such simple-minded thinking. Instead, immediately following the debate, I’d like to see an intelligent, compelling presentation of what each candidate said, and whether it was factually correct, kinda hazy, or utter nonsense. If the candidates understood that they would be immediately followed by an independent fact-check seen on TV, they would be more likely to curb their fanciful interpretations of fact.

Do we need to see two presidential candidates “go at it” as if they were wrestlers? I think we can do a lot better, and I know we possess the tools and the need to approach the whole intersection between presidential candidates and media. But do we possess the will to shift the entire election process into the 21st century?

21st Century Debate

Although the series has been on the air for over five years, I discovered Intelligence ² within the past twelve months. Last night, I watched Malcolm Gladwell argue that college football was a bad idea because it involved the bashing of heads, and that, surely, there was some other game these people could play that would not, you know, involve bashing the heads of students (or anybody else, for that matter). On his team: Buzz Bissinger (he created Friday Night Lights, a popular TV series about football). Bissinger (see in the screen shot below) was strident, fierce and passionate in his well-researched beliefs: (a) colleges and universities should not be in the business of entertaining the masses, and (b) they should not be in the business of providing a farm system for professional football. On the other side, predictably, were two articulate football players who have moved on to bright careers (presumably, they, too have been beaten on the head several thousand times, but seemed to be okay with the way things turned out). Both were associated with FOX Sports: Tim Green and Jason Whitlock. In the advanced game of debate, their arguments proved to be less convincing.

Football is not high of my list of things I care about, but the debate was compelling (and, having now watched several episodes, it’s fair to say that some are very passionate and others are not as much fun to watch). The series is called Intelligence Squared. There are two teams and three rounds. First round: each team member presents his case, his ideas in detail. Second round, they mix it up by arguing with one another. Third round: closing arguments. What’s the point? At the start of each show, the audience at NYU’s Skirball Center votes on a straightforward question: “Should college football be banned?” (yes, the question is black-white and there are grey areas, discussed during debate, but not a part of the ultimate vote on the simple question). Panelists answer questions from members of the audience. End of show: now that they have been presented with convincing arguments, the audience votes again. One team wins (Gladwell-Bissinger), the audience applauds, and we’re done for the evening.

The influence of Stanford Professor James Fishkin is evident here. Deliberative Polling also involves a baseline vote, then immersion in fact-based information seasoned by strong opinion, with a re-vote after the information has been received and processed.

A look at the website suggests that this is modern media done properly. Of course, you can watch or listen to the whole debate (or an edited version, audio+video or audio only). You can listen on about 220 NPR radio stations, or watch on some public TV stations. Or, you can watch on For each episode, the site features a comprehensive biography on each of the four debaters, a complete transcript, and a rundown on the key points made by each debater, along with extensive links to relevant research. In short, you can watch an episode, then read a lot more from the debaters and from the thought leaders who influenced the debaters’ opinions. It’s presented in a  clean, easily accessible (non-academic) way. You can easily dive right in, learn a lot in a short time (if you wish), or spend a few hours to deeply consider what was said, why it was said, and why the voting audience did or did not change its collective mind.

The topics are provocative (and always simplified so they can be stated as a yes/no question for voting). Some examples:

BTW: If you like this sort of thing, you should spend some time at, which features an abundance of intelligent, well-informed, well-researched lectures and discussions. Much of the material is free (advertiser and foundation supported). goes in directions that TED does not. And isn’t it interesting that there are now hundreds of these smart media outlets now available on the internet? In their way, they are taking the place of the 20st century dream of public television…with a broad range of ideas presented from every part of the world, abundant links to related ideas and research. Much of it is free, much of it is provocative, and very little of it is actually seen on television.
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