Change the Debate

Over the last thirty years, information delivery has undergone a revolutionary transformation in both its mechanism and speed, leading to novel access methods and the demise of traditional media. However, the format for presidential debates has remained essentially unchanged for over fifty years. It’s time we applied technology to fundamentally transform the debate paradigm. 

There was a time in the early days of our country when politicians sat on their porches looking presidential while others did their campaigning for them. As railroads expanded to provide access to the westward expansion of our nation, politicians morphed into travelling campaigners and learned that they could get votes merely by having been seen by those who never expected to meet a president. Elaborate debates were held in which the principals would lay out their platforms in long speeches which were reprinted in newspapers for those not able to attend. Advances in communications led to radio debates, and culminated in the televised Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960. This debate, produced by the late Don Hewitt of 60 Minutes fame, has remained the dominant format for presidential debate ever since.

During this time, the presidential debate has devolved into an opportunity for liberally biased media moderators to create tension among candidates with the resulting fireworks leading to increased ratings at the expense of the candidates. This year’s debates have been looked upon with scorn by an electorate tired of witnessing moderators tainted by liberal bias and the profit motive pitting candidates against one another without revealing any depth to their stances on the issues important to those who still care enough to gather facts before choosing a candidate. There is the awareness that this election is extremely important in determining the future direction of our country and we are not getting the information we need to make an informed decision. When the candidates are allowed to answer a question posed to them, they are only given enough time to provide a token sound bite without explaining the deeper motivation behind their position.

Contrast this year’s debates with their numerous candidates, limited answer time, multitude of often distracting questions, and propensity of moderators to pose gotcha questions in an effort to trap candidates in surprise moments for ratings effects with the televised debates as originally envisioned whereby serious questions concerning important issues of the day were posed with time for each of the two candidates to offer an in-depth answer and respond to his opponent. Candidates have been turned into performing monkeys to be poked and prodded in a bid for ratings with no serious concern for exploration of issues. Newt Gingrich has been especially effective in calling out the moderators for engaging in such egregious behavior and pointing out the absurdity of the current debate format.

In casting about for a gimmick to update the debate format, Fox News enlisted the support of Google to conduct an online campaign to select a series of video questions posed by average Americans and voted on by participants as being the ones they would most like to see posed to the candidates. While this touched upon a novel use of the Internet to transform the debate process, it was poorly implemented into the current televised debate format.

I propose that a series of questions be presented online and voted upon by participants to select a comprehensive slate of questions that cover the relevant issues of the day. Then, the candidates would tape their answers to each of these questions using as much time as necessary to properly convey their position. Each question would have a separate answer by each candidate and would be taped privately with all answers released on the Internet simultaneously. This would prevent candidates from sniping at each other and force them to provide their own reasoning to answer the question. Voters could them examine these answers at their leisure, comparing and contrasting in whatever manner they so choose to make an informed decision. This format would eliminate biased moderators who detract from the substance of the debates. Voters would be able to select a question category, view the question, then view each candidate answer in whatever order they chose, and be able to review any answers they desired to provide more illumination on an issue.

Traditional media, with its declining viewership, will not like this format, but it will serve the interests of voters and possibly restore some interest in learning more about the candidates prior to the election. Traditional media outlets cannot grasp the fact that the very antics they employ in a bid to boost ratings are the very things that turn off viewers and drive them to alternative information sources residing on the Internet. We don’t want gimmicks. We just want straightforward answers to important questions so we can make informed decisions. We aren’t watching debates to be entertained, but rather to be informed. There are other options much more entertaining than a debate.

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