The debate over last week’s Republican presidential debate has snared the usual “liberal media” suspects. But that misses the point.
The debate questions that caused controversy didn’t even break along liberal-conservative lines. Moderator John Harwood got in trouble by asking whether Donald Trump was running a “comic-book version” of a campaign.
Harwood deserved the trouble because the way he phrased the question guaranteed that the ensuing discussion would focus on comic books rather than on the substance between the question: Trump’s plans to cut taxes and to wall off Mexico, all without adding to the deficit.
It’s the same plan called “crazy” and “nutty” by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican with solid and longstanding conservative credentials. And it’s the same plan I called “wacky” in this space last week, not because it is conservative but because it isn’t. Surely conservatives as much as liberals should want to know whether a candidate’s plans actually make sense.
Ben Carson bashed the media after he was asked about the math behind his own tax plan. Carson responded that the math added up, but he has never shown us the addition.
Marco Rubio fired back at the media after he was asked why his tax plan allows the wealthy to keep a much larger percentage of their income than people with middle incomes. Rubio claimed that the questioner was confusing percentages with actual dollars, but he wasn’t, indicating that the senator was either unfamiliar with his own plan or was deliberately misleading viewers.
Rubio also made the dubious claim (a claim that was awarded two Pinocchios by the Washington Post fact-checking division) that the interminable Benghazi hearings had proven Democrat Hillary Clinton was a liar. Nobody asked the obvious follow-up: “Sen. Rubio, do you think it was a wise use of taxpayer dollars to spend $4 million to demonstrate that politicians and diplomats sometimes tell lies?”
If the going rate for exposing lies is $4 million, then taxpayers may be on the hook for at least another $24 million after last week’s debate. But that isn’t the point either.
The point is that TV debates are always unsatisfying, not because they are badly moderated but because they are bad TV. The modern TV debate combines the worst elements of Sunday morning talk shows and “Naked and Afraid.”
No one understands better than Trump that debates are a drab spinoff of reality TV, which may be why he continues to lead the pack. Given the limitations of the debate format—with no mechanism to force candidates to actually answer questions and no effective follow-ups—table bangers like Trump and Ted Cruz can easily draw more attention than they deserve.
It’s a new media world in which politicians and journalists alike scramble to put their brand before the public. For journalists, that means snark and a veneer of “just-the-facts” toughness. For Republican politicians that means, well, attacking journalists.
Cruz suggested solving the second problem by having three conservative stalwarts act as moderators: Sean Hannity, Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh. That would at least abandon any pretense that the debates involve journalism.
Hannity doesn’t question his interview subjects; he lectures them. Limbaugh doesn’t really even do interviews, and he acknowledges that his calls are screened to allow on air only those that advance his own agenda. Levin has so angry an on-air demeanor that I can never stand to listen to him for more than a few minutes at a time, but at least if he were moderating, we could hope for a fistfight.
My earlier suggestion that the vast Republican presidential field be weeded out with a series of one-on-one debates scored by professional debate coaches went nowhere. That’s OK. I have other ideas:
♦ Get rid of timed answers. Way too much debate time is taken up by reminders that candidates have used their allotted seconds. If there are 10 candidates in a 100-minute debate (two hours, minus time for introductions and commercials), give each candidate 10 minutes each to use when and as they will. If Carson wants to give a 10-minute opening statement, then go watch the World Series, fine. If all of the candidates just skip the dumbest questions (what is your greatest weakness?) American democracy would prosper.
♦ Get rid of moderators. They can’t control the current format anyway. Just lay out a topic—tax policy, for instance—and let candidates go after each other. When they have used their 10 minutes each, turn off their microphones. Debates should be between candidates, not between candidates and moderators.
♦ Use newspaper reporters as moderators. That’s an old-fashioned idea, but newspapers are old-fashioned, too, and are occasionally still staffed by reporters who put their work above their personal brand. Debates would become more substantive and probably more boring.
♦ Make debates more boring. Trump’s presence in Republican debates has made them a ratings bonanza rather than a dutiful public service. This is unfortunate because real media bias isn’t about spreading liberal ideology. It’s about making money.
In modern journalism, yapping confrontations, not reasoned debate, are what pay the bills. No wonder Trump declined to go along with Republican demands for debate changes.
He would rather negotiate his own deals. Whatever his limitations as a candidate, the man knows TV.
David Crisp has worked for newspapers since 1979. He has been editor and publisher of the Billings Outpost since 1997. The Outpost is published every Thursday and is available for free all over Billings and in nearby communities.