After watching the mayhem at the first Trump-Biden “debate,” I was depressed and disgusted. I thought: “There must be a better way.”
The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) has sponsored and produced the debates since 1987. Although we now know the second debate between the two candidates was going to be “virtual” town hall-style forum, it is time for them to return to the workshop and consider a revised, threefold production format for all future debates.
The first format change should revisit the infamous quiz shows of the 1950s: “The $64,000 Question” and “Twenty-One.” While the shows themselves were buried by a cheating scandal, they had one feature worth resurrecting: “the isolation booth.”
All future debates should have an isolation booth for each separate candidate in order to prevent shouting, interrupting, and cross talking. Since the sound in each booth can be controlled externally, only one candidate can speak — the one to whom the question was directed and whose microphone is switched on. The opponent can shout, wave his/her arms and gesture wildly, throw “stuff” at the window, but will not be heard. When the speaker’s designated minutes have expired, the sound is switched off.
An additional touch here, might be a curtain draped over the booth of the non-speaking candidates, so that even mugging and wild gesticulations go unnoticed. In this case, however, some booths might have to be anchored carefully for fear that the flailing physical rage of a candidate might topple the booth.
The second format change should require two five-minute rounds of uninterrupted speech by each candidate: The first round should allow each candidate to explain his or her policy on a general topic, like climate change, or foreign policy, or tax policy, the pandemic, tax evasion, or medical coverage. The present 60 seconds of rebuttal on complicated subjects encourages sloganeering, not thoughtfulness.
At the end of the first round, a second round should be instituted during which candidates can address soberly how their policies differ from their opponent. This format should diminish the present hysteria that smacks more of cage fighting, bear baiting or dodge ball than reasoned discourse. Instead, useful comparative information might actually be communicated to the viewer and provide clearer insight into each candidate’s qualities or deficiencies.
The third format change relates to the moderators. Get rid of them. The moderators always consist of media stars who seem as interested in burnishing their reputations as “tough questioners” as they are in being conduits for voter information. Unfortunately, their questions tend to be of the snarky variety, questions that only set off another volley of juvenile jabs and insults, and more bellowing interruptions.
Worse yet, moderators like Chris Wallace frequently lose control of the debate. The free-for-all shouting matches that follow force moderators to react like the goon bodyguards on “The Jerry Springer Show” struggling to prevent the goon guests from stabbing one another.
In place of a moderator, an offstage voice should provide the discussion topics for each candidate. Removing the distracting presence of celebrity moderators, in this instance, places the spotlight on the individual candidates and the content of the answers. The result will be that viewers will have a better opportunity to make critical assessments and ponder their choices in an unfiltered, unobstructed fashion.
In the best of all possible worlds, candidates would be mindful of how they compose themselves once the fur starts flying. In the past, though, when candidates were too loud, they sounded abrasive, even unhinged; when they were too quiet, they seemed timid and got trampled; or, when they garbled their words, or became incoherent or forgetful, partisan pundits were already booking rooms for them at a managed care facility.
But even those structural flaws seem minor compared to the debacle of this year’s first presidential debate. So it is past time to bring back the isolation booth, give candidates more time to speak and, yes, end the moderators. Chaos does not serve the citizenry or the nation. Citizens can only be adequately informed by these debates if they can actually hear what the candidates are saying. Only then can citizens judge the quality of their ideas and assess their psychological makeup and ethical character. Informed choices are essential to cut through the fog of equivocations, lies, and outright demagoguery.
This is serious business. America cannot afford another mistake.
William Shaw, of Pinehurst, is the author of “Fellowship of Dust: Retracing the WWII Journey of Sergeant Frank Shaw.”