The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The debate format is an embarrassment. Here’s how to make it better.

Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Beto O'Rourke and six other candidates took the stage in Detroit. (Video: The Washington Post)

About 40 minutes after the start of Tuesday night’s Democratic debate, I got an email from a Washington Post reader with this subject line: “I don’t care for this.”

He was complaining, of course, about the Detroit debate on CNN, which he described as a reality TV show with journalists playing celebrity hosts.

With frustratingly tiny and rigidly enforced response time, outsize attention to fringe candidates and divisive questions — some of which could have been framed by the Republican National Committee — the first Detroit debate was a lost opportunity to inform the voting public.

“Honestly, you could catalog all journalism’s faults just from watching debate moderators,” tweeted Joshua Benton, who runs Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab.

To wit: “An obsession with conflict over explanation, forcing complex policies into soundbites, above-it-all savviness that only makes sense if you spend all your time on Politics Twitter or in DC.”

The worst of Night 1 may have been the format itself, which started with a painfully high-octane video that managed to simultaneously evoke “The NFL Today,” World Wrestling Entertainment and “Jeopardy!” Then there was the spaceship-like set that (according to CNN’s Oliver Darcy) took 100 people eight days to build and involved nine 53-foot semi-trucks.

In one way, CNN’s efforts were an improvement from NBC’s first round of debates a couple of weeks ago — at least there was no absurd demand for a show of hands on complex policy proposals.

But there was a major flaw: CNN’s moderators, like the strictest of schoolmasters, allowed almost no actual debating as they enforced the time limitations. That ridiculous rule needs immediate reform.

As I wrote after last month’s NBC debate, the best decision their moderators made last month was to allow former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris the airtime for a substantive back-and-forth on race-related issues.

With 10 candidates onstage each night, time limits are bound to be a challenge — and yet, such strict enforcement is completely counterproductive for meaningful exchanges.

To break through the noise, the candidate either had to be: (1) spiritual author Marianne Williamson with her planetary (though undeniably correct) pronouncements about the “dark psychic force of . . . collectivized hatred” unleashed by President Trump; (2) former Maryland congressman John Delaney, apparently intended to represent all things Sensibly Centrist — and therefore given far more time than he deserved.

There’s got to be a better way.

I asked a few experts for suggestions to bring the debates closer to something that serves engaged citizens seeking information.

Among their suggestions: No opening statements, allowing more time for substantive answers to questions, and to responses to the other candidates. Topics and questions sourced entirely from voters, which could be gathered in advance. Comparison graphics about candidates’ positions offered in real time. Less conflict-oriented framing in coverage of the debates with phrases that evoke prizefighting: marquee matchups, winners and losers, and explosive faceoffs.

“Political journalism needs to collapse the distance between politicians and the public,” so whatever journalists can do to “act less as gatekeepers and more as conduits for the public’s agenda, the better,” said Jennifer Brandel, CEO and co-founder of Hearken, which consults with newsrooms about better listening and responding to the public.

In the digital age, technology can help in bringing in voters’ voices, allowing for live audience feedback and other innovations.

But other than tech’s role in the overdone setting and intro video, it’s not much more of a factor than it was decades ago. There are some nods to questions from viewers or voters, but they amount to little more than pallid gestures before returning to the main event: the prizefight.

“As it was in 1960, the viewers [are] on one side of the mediated wall and the candidates on the other,” wrote Christine Cupaiuolo, who led the Rethinking Debates project for the nonprofit Civic Hall, in a 2016 report.

Jill Miller Zimon, project director of the Ohio Debate Commission (one of four statewide debate commissions in the country), told me the current debate format not only doesn’t serve the public very well, but also cheats the candidates.

“Well-managed debates play a role in informing the public but they also should honor candidates stepping up and into the arena,” Zimon said.

The current, too-predictable setup tends to “shroud the authenticity of a candidate,” she said. Do we really get to know who these people are?

The way questions are framed can do that, too, as pollster Matt McDermott noted on Twitter.

“CNN debate summarized: Why does your health care plan screw the middle class? Why are you taking health care from hard working Americans? Why are you for open borders?” he wrote. “Imagine CNN asking in a Republican debate: ‘Democrats want to ensure health care for all Americans. You want to kill people. Care to respond?’ ”

Like others who would like to reform debates, Zimon calls for more innovative use of technology during the debates to deepen the conversation, for questions sourced by voters, and for less restrictive use of time limits.

The networks, and the DNC, should pay heed.

The debates aren’t completely pointless, of course. Even in their current format, they give the public a look at the wide field of candidates and their ideas.

But they should be so much better. This moment in history demands it.

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