Nancy Pelosi thinks Joe Biden shouldn’t bother to show up for tonight’s debate with President Trump. It’s not always easy to discern the meaning of the words that come out of Madam Speaker’s mouth, but I gather she thinks Biden would be “legitimizing” the president of the United States by standing on stage with him.
The next person who is legitimized by the presence of Joe Biden will be the first.
Either way, I disagree.
I want to see both President Trump and Mr. Biden show up for the debate. A good debate is a healthy exercise in clarifying the choice before the voters, and it matters when two candidates have a useful exchange with each other on the issues.
Unfortunately, there will be a person on stage who will make sure that doesn’t happen, and that person is Chris Wallace of Fox News.
I have nothing in particular – personal or otherwise – against Mr. Wallace. He’s a bit too hurray-for-the-heroes-of-journalism for my tastes, but that doesn’t make him all that different from the rest who might be tapped to be a debate moderator.
The problem with Mr. Wallace is that he’s a journalist at all, and that makes him the latest example of the worst custom America has accepted in the realm of presidential debates.
Journalists as moderators have been around for more than a generation, which doesn’t make it a good idea.
The very fact that journalists are on the stage makes it something other than a debate. It’s more like a joint press conference in which each candidate’s ability to make his points and challenge the points of the other is limited by the journalist’s arbitrary judgment about what the topic should be.
And from this we have some of the most egregious examples, like Bernard Shaw’s question to Michael Dukakis about his wife being raped and murdered, or Candy Crowley’s fact-challenged rescue of Barack Obama concerning Benghazi. (Why are all the worst examples from CNN?)
And that doesn’t even deal with the questions they ask solely for the purpose of being mentioned in news coverage, or of trapping this or that candidate in an embarrassing moment.
It also doesn’t deal with the fact that the journalist/moderators have a habit of asking one set of questions to one candidate, and an entirely different set of questions to the other candidate.
Supposedly this allows for back-and-forth because of rebuttal opportunities, but with candidates’ habits of evading questions and changing the subject, there is no real discussion.
Far too often, a journalist asks some loaded or leading question, only to have the candidate respond with a statement that starts with “Let me first just say…” and never answers the convoluted question, leaving the other candidate nowhere useful to go with a rebuttal.
Here is a better way to go: You can have a moderator, but their only job is to explain and enforce the rules. And this moderator would not ask questions, nor try to be a journalist.
The moderator would introduce a topic, explain the time limit for the topic, and inform the candidates the time that’s available for them to A) make their own statements; B) ask questions of the other candidate; and C) respond to what the other candidate has said.
Beyond that, the candidates themselves do the talking and challenge each other directly.
These would make for much better, and on-point, debates. They would be more likely to deal in substance and would give us some really interesting discussion about the issues.
They could get nasty too, but at least if that happened, the candidates couldn’t blame anyone but themselves.
Getting rid of media moderators would be the biggest improvement that could be made to presidential debates. They would be instantly transformed from an eye-rolling slog to a really interesting night of television.
What do you say, Commission on Presidential Debates? Are your journalist moderators really making these things better? I think you know the answer.
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