Yes, The DNC's Debate Format Sucks, And There's An Easy Fix
from the DIY dept
Man, these presidential election years sure seem to last longer than a year, don’t they? And, in our hyper-partisan world of never ending political stupidity, it’s somewhat comforting that the one thing we can all agree on is that the debate formats recently have basically sucked out loud. The complaints about debate formats started with the 2016 RNC primaries, with its crowded field and strange varsity/JV debate night structure. Fast-forward to 2019 and the DNC’s Democratic debates are being pilloried as well. In the latter case, the chief criticism appears to be that there is far too little substance discussed, with moderators for cable and OTA networks instead focusing on getting the candidates to clash in the most easy-to-soundbite fashion. Even from the major print media, you get takes such as:
Democrats woke up Thursday to find that the debate format they have agreed to is an unmitigated disaster designed to hype ratings (hence baiting the candidates to attack one another) but not to educate voters or really test candidates’ fitness for office.
Sure, getting rid of most of the field in September by raising the qualifications to 2 percent support in designated polls and 130,000 unique donors will help. If the threshold went up a percentage point each month, we might finally get to a manageable field in which candidates have more than one minute to spit out an answer and 30 seconds to rebut. However, this won’t solve all the problems with the current system
That’s right, although it seems somewhat lost that the real problem here is identified in that opening paragraph. The system today is one in which the DNC and RNC partner with cable and OTA broadcasters to televise the debate. As part of that deal, those same broadcasters put their own news personalities in the chairs of moderators. This creates a pretty obvious conflict of interest. The debates is supposed to be a method through which small-D democratic process functions: voters are introduced to candidates they may not previously have been aware of, they learn those candidates’ positions, and all of this is reflected in public polling to inform those candidates as to whether they should stay in the race or not. This process winnows the field down to a functional choice between select candidates.
But this isn’t what happens. Instead, the moderators, many of which host their own news programs, push the preferred process of the founding fathers to the side and instead adopt the ideals of the founder of the Maury Pauvich Show. Candidates are incentivized both in the coverage and by the time-restrictions on responses to questions to spit out sound-bite-y quips rather than debate true policy. And there is a pretty simple way to change the misalignment of incentives in all of this: the DNC should stream and broadcast the debate itself and then license network and cable TV providers to rebroadcast it.
Thanks to the internet and the rise of quality equipment with which to stream stuff, the parties no longer need to dole out broadcast partnerships for their debates. Instead, the parties can handle all of this themselves and stream the debates either on their own sites, or via platforms like Facebook or YouTube. TV partners can then be allowed to re-transmit that, which they’ll absolutely want to do. If they somehow do not, the stream will be available on the internet.
This move would do several things. First, it would end the insanity that is DMCA notices and platform bans that happen when people re-transmit the broadcast of a TV partner on streaming sites. The idea that a major party debate should be locked up behind copyright notices surely would make the founding fathers shit themselves. And, yet, that’s what’s happening today.
More importantly, it would leave moderator seats vacant for those with actual expertise on the topics to be discussed. Those moderators would also not be incentivized to generate soundbites or easy-to-repackage quips for cable news broadcasts. Literally everything would be better and there is no longer a technological or cost barrier to do all of this.
So, RNC and DNC: when the campaigns start for 2024, which will likely start roughly ten minutes after the 2020 election, consider this your DIY project.