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Modern debates need to be tweaked

Blame Abraham Lincoln. It’s all his fault.

He was the one who, in 1858, challenged Stephen A. Douglas, to a series of debates for the Senate seat from Illinois that Douglas held at the time. That, though, was merely about the job they both wanted. Both knew there were much bigger matters – slavery, for instance – to debate. Matters that weren’t going away and needed full airing. Those subjects would remain, said Lincoln, “after these tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent.”

So the two men went around the state and debated in each of Illinois’ seven congressional districts. The first candidate talked for an hour. The next got 90 minutes. And finally the first returned with another 30 minutes. They alternated order from town to town.

As you might expect, 19th-century attention spans for such unusual fare were a wee bit different from ours now. The debates were huge attractions. People flocked from other states. Audiences were allowed to shout out questions, laugh, applaud and root for their favorites as if at a boxing match.

Lincoln couldn’t wrest the Senate seat from Douglas, but his reputation soared. He became a Republican spokesman and years later, when they faced off for the presidency, Lincoln won.

Thank God this year’s presidential debates are over. A certain show business appeal is unavoidable and has been since Lincoln/Douglas. In every case, showbiz cohabits with politics and has, in modern times, ever since the cliche that those who listened to the 1960 debate on radio thought Richard Nixon won and those who watched on TV were dazzled by a new kind of American political celebrity in John F. Kennedy. The young, handsome, tanned, intellectual and articulate senator beneath that Boston accent was more charismatic than most movie stars.

I’m going to make a couple of modest proposals as someone who has watched every American presidential debate of the modern era, since Kennedy and Nixon.

First: The audience should either be eliminated entirely or left alone to react, after audience access to the debates has been distributed equally among partisans. Telling people they can watch but have to behave as if they’re in seventh grade or in church is ridiculous. Lincoln and Douglas knew better. You can’t keep the showbiz out with an audience.

I say get rid of that debate audience entirely. Just put the candidates in a TV studio and let them say what they want for prescribed periods of time. Not to each other , because the back and forth of this year’s debates was nauseating. No presidential candidate should have to suffer the other behaving like a reality show contestant.

Second: Stop expecting moderators to be fact checkers.

When one candidate is so contemptuous of ordinary political discourse and the whole ordinary fact/falsehood continuum, moderators have their hands full keeping each candidate present and accounted for fairly at every point in the debate. Requiring that they be, at the same time, fact checkers for everything preposterous that can be launched by a candidate using falsehood as a playground intimidation gambit is ridiculous.

At the same time, all moderators should be even more steeped in the issues and previous candidate performances than they are.

Chris Wallace, predictably, was very good, even though he rightly said long before the debate he’d never be able to fact check every word. When each debate was over, an enterprising network could have done due diligence by reporting how many truths and falsehoods were uttered by each contestant and then countered every falsehood and exaggeration. A 15-minute segment from results of intense “truth squad” backstage research during airtime would have done it.

The town hall format only works when you can be sure both candidates will behave like grown ups. Having audience participation and cross-talk makes for incredibly vile and uninformative television. It’s nothing but rudeness and defensiveness.

Third: Try, as an experiment, killing showbiz altogether and, a few times during the election, let TV or cable network journalists take over. In other words, no live TV debate at all.

Instead, give network news departments 90 minutes of uninterrupted TV airtime to give each candidate 45 minutes during which the news people, array journalistically (yes, as “fairly” as possible) everything each candidate has said on different subjects on the campaign trail and in public appearances. It would be incredible if every news department cooperated, letting their footage be available to all without question.

Those “debates” could be separated in two ways: clumps (as in 45 minutes of what each candidate had to say) or in small pieces on different subjects. I’d trust any TV news department to be more informative doing that than candidates are in a mosh pit debate.

Perfect fairness and balance would be impossible but it would be more revealing than so much of what we had to sit through in 2016.

The debates have become very bad showbiz that we watch because we think they’re good civics. But they’re rotten civics, too. We’re citizens who are hissing and laughing at the villains and tweeting our loathing. We’re cheering our heroes to all our fellow cheerers.

And with every passing minute we’re running the risk of turning the participants into fools.

You can bet your house that Lincoln, Douglas, Kennedy and Nixon would agree on what a lousy development that is.


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