No moderators needed

Posted on October 4, 2016. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , |

Whatever anybody wants to say about Donald Trump, he’s got drawing power.

After first shattering Republican primary voting records all over the country—in some areas by 100 percent increases—he did the same thing in his inaugural appearance in a presidential debate.

Nielsen reported an average 84 million people tuned in on Monday to watch Trump and Hillary Clinton go at it, which is 12 million more than the previous record in 2012. And that doesn’t count the large number of people, perhaps in the millions, who recorded the debates to watch later.

On top of that, the first Clinton-Trump debate also set records all over the Internet, again by enormous margins. YouTube said the debate was the largest live streaming political event “of all time.” The concurrent viewership of nearly 2 million was 14 times more than those who streamed the 2012 debate.

The debate decidedly trounced a perennial TV power program, Monday Night Football, which is no easy task. Internet-only TV service provider Sling TV in Colorado reported that at the peak of the debate, which started 30 minutes later than the Falcons-Saints game, 68 percent more viewers were watching presidential candidates than pigskins.

These record-breaking debate statistics all come, ironically, in a year where voter consensus is characterized as disillusionment and dissatisfaction with the two choices presented. For an allegedly apathetic bunch, the electorate sure seemed interested on Monday night.

And ever since, the online commentary has been abuzz. Whether on major news outlet sites and stories or on social media, people are having their say. Some of it is pure political hack, of course. A lot of it is partisan passion from folks who simply aren’t changing their minds.

But one area of heated discussion has great validity, not necessarily for or against either candidate’s camp, and that’s the role the moderator played. Most of the arguments are Band-Aid variety, but symptomatic complaints can never cure the core problem, which is whether a moderator is needed at all.

Times and technology have changed so much about how Americans get their news about candidates that debate viewers are already overly exposed to ads and interview soundbites.

It’s a welcome opportunity to see the two candidates in a scenario where there are no retakes or practice rounds.

But why is there a third party in the mix? Obviously, media organizations clamor to place a moderator between the two candidates in order to feather their own nests. After providing Lester Holt to moderate the debate, NBC led all networks with 16.6 million viewers.

Reviews of Holt’s performance are as predictably divided as political opinions, but the truth is it’s an impossible job from the onset. How many times did he interrupt each candidate? Challenge or fact-check each candidate? Ask follow-up questions to each candidate?

Unless the behavior is precisely the same, inquiring political minds will find fault and favor.

Holt said in his introduction that the questions for the candidates were his, but is it a good idea for any one person–especially one on a TV network payroll–to get to control the discourse? It’s asking too much for moderators, who are human like the rest of us, to not shape or intervene.

For example, right in the middle of a much-needed airing out of the law-and-order issue, Holt suddenly changed the subject to the “birther” controversy surrounding President Barack Obama.

Honestly? More than 3,000 people have been shot in Chicago alone, and gun crime is shoved to the back seat behind a non-issue?

A better format for future debates? Ditch the moderator. Let voters weigh in on the host college’s website with questions and suggestions, and then let the winning five categories become the assigned topics of discussion.

Structure the debate itself more like a legal case. Give each candidate five minutes for an opening argument (toss a coin to see who goes first, or by deferring who goes last in closing arguments).

Let each candidate have 10 minutes for each of the five categories, and use a loud sports buzzer as a drowning-out “time’s up” signal. Mute the microphone of the opposing candidate once their time is expired to prevent overages and interruptions.

If the candidates want to ignore the topic and talk about something else or recite blindly from a talking points script, so be it (they do that with a moderator anyway). If one candidate wants to spend the whole night talking about one single issue, to his or her peril or gain, so be it.

In short, and as a nod to the legendary Lincoln-Douglas debates, let the candidates govern themselves.

It’s their time to either shine or screw up, which might tell us a little about how they’d govern the nation. Viewers can interpret for themselves whether and to what degree the candidates’ behaviors—good or bad—are presidential.

At the end, each candidate gets another five minutes for closing arguments to wrap things up in a tidy two hours.

It’s too late for this year, but perhaps 2020 will be a visionary year for restructuring, and improving, debates.

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