The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump should swiftly reject the schedule of 2020 debates

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump meet for their first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., on Sept. 26, 2016. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Last week, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced the schedule of 2020 presidential debates. President Trump should quickly dismiss that schedule as unacceptable and announce that if any debates will be held at all in 2020, it will be only after extensive, direct negotiations between him and the eventual nominee of the Democratic Party and their respective designated representatives. And those negotiations should begin from a premise that the Republicans will no longer play by the biased rules of a deeply unbalanced Manhattan-Beltway media elite. Explicitly articulating this declaration of intent now, along with the possibility that, as in 1968 and 1972, there won’t be any debates, would do both the public and the elite media a great service.

According to a recent Gallup survey, 13 percent of Americans “have a great deal of trust” in the mass media and 28 percent “a fair amount,” with “69% of Democrats [saying] they have trust and confidence in it, while 15% of Republicans and 36% of independents agree.” So more than half the country distrusts the media, and that suspicion is overwhelming among those on the center-right. And why shouldn’t they be suspicious, given incidents such as moderator Candy Crowley’s infamous intervention in the second debate in 2012?

Trumpian denunciations of “fake news” are a staple of every presidential rally, and Big Media’s compilations of alleged “lies” by the president are routine and routinely ignored or dismissed on the right. The anger and disdain toward the president and his administration in newsrooms — stoked by two years of dry-hole drilling by Robert S. Mueller III and now a sham impeachment — have bankrupted even the pretense of objectivity by Manhattan-Beltway media elites. Most everyone I work with — from left to right — tries to be fair in our questions and competent in our craft. But the overwhelming weight of the ideology of the collective newsroom has resulted in an avalanche of bias.

The Manhattan-Beltway media elite seems to the center-right of the country at large to be overwhelmingly committed to the defeat of Trump. Essentially half of the United States expects the four debates will, in fact, be four ambushes by the combined forces of the Democratic nominee and the elite media operating in tandem, though not in explicit coordination. Look at the Gallup numbers: The media’s credibility is shattered beyond repair. The self-proclaimed refs are not trusted by more than half of the public. That’s undeniable anymore. Whatever one thinks of the justice of the public’s verdict, it is the verdict.

So the assumptions on which the debate commission were founded are simply not applicable anymore. The commissioned hasn’t failed in its mission. It has been overtaken by events on the ground, and any role it serves going forward will be meaningful only if its ground rules on moderators, question length and so on change dramatically.

The press isn’t the “enemy of the people,” but it has been traumatized by so many shocks that it has lost self-awareness of the contempt in which it is held by large swaths of America. It is thus ridiculous to assign elite media any role in the campaign ahead based on legacy status, which is exactly what the commission has always done and will do again if not preempted.

Trump is the incumbent who can restore presidential debates to serious exercises in exploring the crucial differences between the two major-party candidates, but he has to begin by taking a wrecking ball to the perceived entitlement of a system begun before cellphones and the Internet and built on the thoroughly debunked belief in media “objectivity.” So start over. There are plenty of alternatives, and the best would involve open access and genuinely smart, diverse questioners who are not rehearsed to seek conflict, headlines or ratings. A lesser dose of media celebrity is a higher dose of fairness to the voters. (And please, no more idiotic “town halls.”)

Act quickly, Mr. President. The announcement won’t end media bias. It won’t heal any breaches. But the discussion of what, if anything, comes a year from now will be out on the table and openly debated, as it should be in a free republic.

Read more:

Amanda Ripley: How to redesign the debates for our current political climate

Jennifer Rubin: Improve the debates or dump them

Gary Abernathy: The partisan media still doesn’t understand Trump Country

Gary Abernathy: Journalists should look less at Trump and more in a mirror