Presidential debate format makes for great entertainment, fails to educate viewers on candidates

After eight Republican presidential debates and six Democratic presidential debates, a common theme emerged.

Over and over, the mainstream media, by means of its pundits and debate moderators, have taken control of the narrative of the presidential primary process.

Out of the 14 debates hosted by the Republican National Convention (RNC) and Democratic National Convention (DNC), 10 were broadcast on cable news – CNBC, CNN, Fox News, Fox Business and MSNBC.

It must be understood that these networks are, first and foremost, selling entertainment. For example, Fox News’ biased agenda was made crystal clear during the first presidential primetime debate.

First, moderator Bret Baier asked which of the candidates would not guarantee his or her endorsement of the eventual Republican nominee. This question was used as a ploy to purposefully single out Donald Trump. Moments later, Megyn Kelly asked Trump if he was part of the apparent “war on women.”

The list of unprecedented questions and malicious attacks in the debates we’ve seen this election cycle could go on and on.

To be clear, the Lariat is not demanding a free pass from criticism for the candidates. But it is demanding the debates be predicated on policy and substance, and not the sophomoric drama that was manufactured for each debate.

Enough is enough. These debates have turned into pointless fueds and are generated from phony issues that are then used for the so-called hard-hitting questions.

Recall the Lincoln-Douglas debates that occurred in 1858. At that time, newcomer Abraham Lincoln and incumbent Stephen A. Douglas were running to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate. They participated in a series of seven one-on-one debates.

The debate format was as follows: Douglas or Lincoln would open with an hour-long address. The other would then open his platform with an hour-and-a-half address. Then, the first would have a 30-minute rebuttal period. The debate was then over.

Aside from actually attending the debate, the only hope the public had of knowing anything from the debate and/or the candidates was in printed transcripts of the debate, newspapers or word of mouth. Obviously, there was no broadcast media in that day.

That is a striking difference from what the RNC and DNC deal with today in their presidential debates. Granted, expectations of these primary debates mirroring the Lincoln-Douglas debate format are not realistic.

Just from the sheer number of candidates, it would take all day to complete a Lincoln-Douglas debate format in this day and age and would be nothing short of exhausting for the participants.

Also, the Lincoln-Douglas debates were solely one-on-one debates as opposed to this season’s debates (with the exception of the last Democratic debate, which downsized to just two candidates).

But this editorial is not necessarily about format, but principle. Take the format of the Lincoln-Douglas debates into consideration simply as a matter of principle and an ideal.

The non-negotiable principles of these debates that should be expected and demanded by the American republic are: (1) accountability and transparency from the candidates; (2) a fair system for the exchanging ideas; (3) substantive, useful and constructive argumentation.

News media hosting the debates strive for an end result that is not only useless, but toxic to the American republic. Today, the American people are served a distorted, fragmented view of each of the candidates from these debates. It is unfair to the candidates and unfair to the American people.

The media didn’t control anything during the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The people were able to think and analyze the candidates for themselves and the candidates were able to represent themselves in their fullest capacity. Why should we strive for any different today?

Forcing these debates to fit a primetime TV slot has compromised the value and purpose of having them in the first place.

In contrast to the extensive, perhaps exhaustive, style in the Lincoln-Douglas format, candidates are given 60 seconds to answer a question picked by the moderator(s) these days.

Let’s not beat around the bush. Anyone with a shred of public speaking talent can speak jargon for 60 seconds and get applause. By the time the question is asked, answered and concluded, no one has learned anything.

Imagine if today’s candidates were put in a Lincoln-Douglas debate and were required to speak at length about their policies and substance, knowing full well they would face a thorough rebuttal from their opponent(s). The shallowness or depth of each candidate would be much more clear.

From the news media’s perspective, boxing the candidates into 60 seconds each provides good news clips. These then transfer into television and radio programming and could also be used as topics for editorial pages, or even more questions for the campaign trail. It’s a monster that feeds off itself over and over again.

The fundamental problem is that the current debate format is operating on the news media’s terms and not the American people’s terms.

A moderator is supposed to facilitate the debate for meaningful discourse, not be part an active member in it. Nobody watches the Super Bowl and hopes the referees start running routes and catching passes to decide the championship.

At this point, the news media is in way too deep. It is for this reason that the stations should be stripped of their exclusive debate hosting privileges, which should be given back in their entirety to the respective political party national convention.

At the very least, the parties and their organizational convention should host the debates on their own dime, determine which issues will be addressed during the debate and provide their own moderator.

The constituents of ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, etc., should assume their role as national broadcast news outlets to televise the debates for the greater good of the American people.

The role of the mainstream media in solely broadcasting the debates should be done as a service and demanded by the American people, ensuring a public broadcast of the debate is provided.

The process of choosing the president should not be about the news organizations.

Sadly and frustratingly, that is exactly what it has become. It should be about the American people hearing the arguments they need to hear on the policies that actually matter, which should be spoken from the candidates themselves; not misinterpreted and improperly projected by surrogates in mainstream media.

It is our duty as the American people to demand better. The news media and political party conventions should be there to serve us; not control us, exploit us and throw us to the dogs.

All of this should be done in the hope that the individual will find a more complete, fair and truthful understanding of a candidate’s platform, and, therefore, adequate competency in electing the next president.