Fake Debates


What television broadcasters and viewers insist on calling political debates are nothing more than verbal street fights. The fact that everyone wears business attire doesn’t hide the fact that the entertainment caters not to serious thought but to the blood lust that taints everything in America from political campaigns to pee-wee sports.

A real debate is a formal contest between two competitors who politely but persuasively argue opposite sides of a single question. To promote their own side and to refute their opponent, they need to study all aspects of the topic in advance and arrive with a well-rounded and fact-based understanding of all the pros and cons. Strict rules govern the order of arguments and rebuttals.

When you line up a dozen candidates, shoot questions at them, and allow them to ramble on and on and interrupt each other, you don’t have a debate. When you stage the same kind of confrontation between the final two candidates, you still don’t have a debate.

Broadcasters have a moral and ethical obligation (it should also be a legal one) to find a better name for these shows or else change the format. Here’s how to make these events legitimate exchanges of views even if you continue to call them (wrongly) debates.

First, eliminate the live audience. If you won’t do that, at least instruct the audience that this is a cerebral activity, not a sporting event and that, as in a court of law, disruptive behavior (cheering, applause, loud groaning, etc.) will be cause for immediate removal of the offender from the room. Then enforce it.

Inform “debaters” in advance that three attempts to interrupt another speaker will result in ejection from the program, and then enforce it.

Mute the microphones of all participants until the moderator invites one of them to speak. Don’t show individual camera shots of other “debaters” reacting to the speaker.

Insist on relevant responses to the moderator’s questions. A “debater” who starts to answer a question with a stump speech or a list of talking points will immediately have his or her microphone muted and her or his image removed from the screen. A yes-or-no question must be answered with a Yes or No, after which the speaker may support the Yes or No with relevant commentary. But if the commentary comes first, or if it strays from the specific point of the question, the speaker’s microphone will be muted and his image blocked from the screen.

Once muted and blocked out visually, a player can’t get back into the game until the next round of questioning. A contestant who violates any combination of these rules three times will be ejected from the program.

A panel of judges should score each participant. A player will score higher for emphasizing her own achievements or virtues than for enumerating his opponents’ failures or shortcomings. Statements of fact attributed to specific sources will earn more points than glittering generalities. The number of times a performer’s microphone is muted for rules violations will adversely affect her score.

What? This is too much trouble? You’d have to spend too much money for staffing? And the show would be too boring? It’s cheaper and easier and way more popular just to let the contestants slug it out for the entertainment of the masses?

Fine. But quit calling these shows “debates” or any other term implying a serious and informative activity, and quit claiming credit for them as News or Public Affairs programming under the terms of your license to use the public airwaves for your own profit.

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