This house believes . . . Retooling American Presidential Debates

Is it fair to say that journalists deserve the lion’s share of responsibility for the way politicians are perceived by the public?  Of course it is, because they control the microphones and cameras, and they use those handy tools to portray liberals as open-minded, caring altruists, and conservatives as heartless, closed-minded religious zealots. They nearly always mention party affiliation when reporting about a conservative who has fallen from grace, but they rarely mention the party affiliation of a liberal who has behaved similarly.

Is it fair to say that we elected Barack Obama because the media was in the cheering section of the bleachers throughout the presidential campaign, and has remained there ever since he won the election?  Absolutely!  During the election, with the power of lights, cameras, television, the internet, and print media, the media managed to convince a majority of the voting public that their man was “The One” we have been waiting for.  The media believed in Obama, so they put him on a pedestal.  Describing such star-struck reporters and talking heads as journalists insults the memory of that quaint old idea of “fair-and-balanced reporting”.  So, this begs an important question.

Why do we always turn to the major networks to run the debates, and allow the journalist/moderator to choose a laundry list of cherry-picked questions to ask the candidates, especially presidential debates?  Is it simply because they own the cameras, therefore we assume we must turn control over to them, or might it be because journalists have subtley convinced us that they are smarter than everyone else simply because their faces are on television every night.  Alternatively, have we as individuals just become lazy voyeurs who accept the traditional format because the American public is unfamiliar with other formats? The answer is probably all three.  This needs to change. Now!

Even though the mainstream media has deliberately under-reported the spontaneous growth of protest against this administration, at the grassroots level it is a widely-known fact that tea party revolutionaries of all political stripes will be on red alert during future political campaigns. Thus now is the time for us to think about our expectations for future debates.  We need to change to a format that gives opposing candidates more time to express their views, and to directly challenge their opponent’s remarks, with little or no intervention by the moderator.  Putting it bluntly, we need to geld the moderator in order to give the debaters their voices back.

How do we do this?  We introduce the American public to the Oxford style of debate as often as possible.  We should begin doing this now with state and national candidates running for election in 2010 and 2012.  This will give us time to appreciate the format as we approach the election of our next President in 2012.

In our current debate format, presidential candidates generally stand before a panel of several journalists, or in some cases, a single well known journalist, all of whom arrive with a series of self-selected questions.  This process opens the door for potential bias, both because of the nature of the questions asked, and the order in which they are ranked.  Furthermore, because there are so many questions to answer, the candidates don’t get a chance to reply to any of them in great depth.  Oftentimes the audience is left with soundbite answers that work well for media citations, but less well for understanding the depth and breadth of a candidate’s knowledge, vision, and competence.

Having just criticized most of the media for their political bias, and the way presidential debates have been formatted to date, it’s very encouraging to note that National Public Radio (NPR) is producing a program using an Oxford-style format in which panelists debate big issues. And, yes, a journalist, John Donvan of CBS News, is the moderator, but his role is different than that we’ve become accustomed to watching.  This is a debate format that political candidates could easily adopt.

NPR’s program is called Intelligence Squared US .  Their format is Americanized in that it doesn’t employ all of the protocol used by the Oxford Union, such as how opponents address each other and the moderator.  Interestingly, traditional Oxford debates permit audience members to interrupt speakers at any time during the debate by standing and saying “Point of Information”.  The speaker being challenged or queried can either respond or ignore the request.  In contrast, the Americanized Oxford-style debate used by NPR does allow for questioning by the audience, but the moderator controls the timing and selects the questioners by a predetermined process.  Frankly, the former method would probably make for a much more stimulating debate, especially if the audience is moderate in size.  However, in a presidential debate, with hundreds or perhaps thousands in the audience, this would prove difficult to manage.  The traditional Oxford format also differs in another way with respect to audience participation.  After opponents and proponents have finished making their cases, anyone in the audience is permitted to make a two-minute speech for either side of the issue.  There are other differences between the traditional and Americanized debate formats, but these stand out as the key differences in style.

The format used by Intelligence Squared US is as follows:

The moderator begins by making a motion to the panel.  Recent debate motions proposed by NPR’s moderator include:  Are Obama’s Economic Policies Working Effectively , Can the U.S. Succeed in Afghanistan, Pakistan? , and Who’s To Blame For The Financial Crisis? Readers are encouraged to click those links to view the actual debates.

After hearing the motion, but before the panelists begin their debate, the audience is polled using hand-held devices as to whether they support, are opposed to, or are undecided about the motion.  The results are tallied and revealed later.

The NPR debate is divided into three rounds with proponents of the issue on one panel and opponents on the other panel.  In Round 1, the debaters each make opening statements, usually lasting 7 minutes each.   If this format were to be used in final-stage presidential debates, the time allotment would necessarily be greatly extended because there would only be two candidates.  In any case, the moderator’s role at this point is to watch the clock to ensure that each debater gets equal time to speak.

Once all opening statements have been made, the moderator reveals the results of the audience’s vote preceding the debate.

Round 2 begins with the moderator picking up on one of the debater’s remarks, and asking an opponent whether he agrees or disagrees with the premise.  Thereafter, the debaters go head to head, asking questions of each other.  Again, the moderator’s role is simply to ensure that each person gets equal time.  The moderator may ask further questions, but generally the opponents control most of the discussion during this round.  However, at a set point in time, the moderator invites the audience to ask questions of the debaters.  Members of the audience raise their hands if they have a question, and then the moderator singles out an individual to approach the microphone.  If the questioner is a member of the media, they are instructed to say so up front.  Questioners are also instructed to avoid making speeches, and to ask questions directly related to the motion under debate.  Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t, so it’s the moderator’s job to cut the questioner off if he or she doesn’t comply with the rules.

In the final Round 3, debaters make their closing arguments within an alloted time frame.  When all have finished their statements, the audience is polled again to see if their views have altered after listening to the arguments.  This determines who won the debate.

As you can see from the Oxford-style format used by NPR, the moderator plays a truly minimalist role.  He or she is not as much in the spotlight as the moderators we now use.  Furthermore, the debaters are given more time to analyze a complex issue, and greater latitude to challenge their opponents.  Also, very importantly, the audience is part of the debate process.

An Oxford-style debate format would probably not appeal to a weak political candidate, especially if that individual has been heavily managed by political operatives to hide his or her flaws from the public, and even more so if a fawning media overlooked his or her lack of experience and competence during a campaign. In contrast, a candidate who has a great breadth and depth of knowledge will be very attracted to the format because it would offer an opportunity to prove that he or she has the skills, knowledge, competence, vision and confidence that we need for an officeholder, especially if that person wants to be President of the United States.  Any candidate afraid to use this format should not be seeking elective office.  Voters should remember this weakness as a red flag against the candidate on election day.  It would be really interesting to watch a debate in which the presidential candidates were seconded by their VP candidates, and opposing sides faced off on the same stage instead of in separate debates.

From this point onward, what happens next is up to you, the reader.  If you agree that expecting political candidates to participate in an Oxford-style debate is a worthwhile idea, then you must do what you can to make this a reality.  You can begin by passing this idea around amongst your friends, family, neighbors, church groups, clubs, and any other way you can imagine.  Write editorials or letters to the editor.  Contact the Commission on Presidential Debates .  Most importantly, whether by phone, fax or letter, let political candidates know that this is the kind of debate format that you, the voter, want to see, and that any candidate who spurns the idea will not be taken seriously.

If this format had been used in the late-stage presidential debates of 2008, it’s likely that neither candidate would have impressed the audience very much, but these were the candidates we nominated in the primaries so ultimately we had to choose one of them to become President.  On the other hand, if an Oxford-style debate format had taken place amongst primary candidates, we may have had a very different election result on November 4, 2008.