Time to Clean Up American Presidential Debates

An essay by J. Paul Duplantis

As I have watched the 2020 Democratic Party presidential debates I have been struck by three realizations.

#1 – In a hyper-connected world, an audience has no place in a presidential debate.

#2 – A for-profit mediaDebate Graphic company has no place in sponsoring a presidential debate

#3 – Presidential debates should never be hidden behind paywalls or subscription services during or after the broadcast.

Why is this important? Because the alternative either manipulates or withholds participation of the electorate in the choices they make in the voting booth.

One might say with point number one participation is alive and well when members of the electorate are in a live audience during a debate. This would be true in a town hall setting but not in a debate where the only feedback provided by a media-saturated live audience is through the influence of their cheers or boos on those debating, watching or listening.

How could it not be clear, audience participation en masse provokes and cajoles debaters to engage in rhetorical flourishes pulling the discussion away from policy.  Realistically, how effective could anyone be at maintaining their focus while being baited by an audience or moderator for that matter? Of course, we want to choose leaders who perform well under pressure but the ability to navigate the whims of an audience certainly seems to be a low priority skill set when looking at the scope of the job at hand. We have to ask ourselves if we want to be entertained or if we want to hear how our leaders will lead?

Which leads me to point number two.

How is it acceptable for private media companies, whose job it is to influence millions of people through their reportage and opinion pieces, are allowed to sponsor a presidential debate? Just the juxtaposition of a corporate logo behind those vying for the highest seat in the land to represent the people they may serve conjures up thoughts of Orwellian manipulation, does it not? When a presidential debate is part of a rating strategy whether it is CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News, the electorate ends up with a pay to play model architecting civic discourse rather than an engagement of ideas between those who will govern and the governed.

Which leads me to point number three.

When the first presidential debate aired over the radio in 1948 between Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen access was granted through the transmission of free public airwaves. Yes, people owned radios but the transmission was free where a presidential debate was made available in a public space reaching out to a broad spectrum of the electorate through the realization of technology. Now that 87% of Americans are connected to the internet through their computers or mobile devices, an opportunity exists to invite even more of the electorate into understanding the candidate’s positions through the realization of 24/7 media playback.

But the public square has moved into a private boardroom when debates are hidden behind paywalls or a subscription service reserving understanding of representation to those with the privilege of access. And even when made available online after the fact, debates are usually buried within the commentary of the sponsor and an infinite rotation of talking heads taking the reins out of the horse’s mouth and into the hands of media interpretation.

Now with a host of problems identified, what are the solutions?

#1 – Drop audience participation and journalist moderation for questions posed from online communities of citizens, business leaders, academics, policy experts, and voter advocacy groups. Vetting questions through a neutral party to reduce gotcha moments and leading rhetoric to build a firewall between the forces of political discourse and media influence.

#2 – Require all presidential debates to be hosted, recorded, and made available online for free by a non-profit public service corporation such as C-SPAN to ensure the debates reach as much of the electorate as possible without having to feed a bottom line tied to a rating metric. Having hosted the Trump Clinton debate of 2016 and maintaining a full schedule of covering House and Senate proceedings made available online for free, what stands in the way of C-SPAN hosting and distributing all presidential debates?

Forrest Gump debate graphic

#3 – Move the original content of the debates and relevant data to the top of search results for debate related keywords through structured data. If Google and Bing can use structured data frameworks to provide a detailed synopsis of movies, actors and directors at the top of search results, why are our presidential debates relegated to the whims of organic results and media interpretation? Do we want to be led or do we want to better understand the positions of those we feel will best lead?

I often hear complaints about the relevancy of debates and how they are merely a reflection of the political status quo more often than not ending up in a shouting match between rivals. Maybe the electorate would take the presidential debates more seriously if the debates took themselves more seriously. What is possible when debates are broken out of private silos to create more of a dialogue with the citizenry? Where debaters could engage directly with ideas and concerns coming from deep within the roots of a democratic society.

What could be built to harness the tools of mobile communication and newly formed social connections to bridge the divide between the governed and the governing? Maybe a good starting point is in the restructuring of the presidential debates to more effectively model the ideals behind a representational democratic republic.



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