Since presidential debates started in 1960, the journalists who are supposed to “moderate” them have increasingly set the agenda and determined the substance of what the public sees. In the first 2016 presidential debate, Fox News’ “moderators” focused on what might embarrass candidates rather than on their record or proposals. Also, they indulged the Republican Establishment’s animus against its least favorite candidate. Though this made for an exciting show, the biggest loser was the public’s interest in understanding candidates and issues. The public interest would be best served were candidates to question one another. That’s how it was done in Lincoln’s day. We could and should get back to that.
Choosing the president of the United states on the basis of short answers to questions formulated or chosen by journalists was always a bad idea. It has only gotten worse. Limited to two minutes, as in the League Of Women Voters debates (Fox’s limit was one minute answers and 30 second rebuttals) the candidates can only reprise their canned talking points or the cleverish ads that are the foul staples of modern campaigns. Such parodies of debates demean the candidates, and all of us who watch. Along with the candidates, we the people become pawns in a game between the political consultants, the “moderators,” and the commentators who then tell us who played best.
The Myth Of The Moderator
Because no one ever doubted that “moderators” would influence the outcome of presidential debates, much effort went into giving the impression that the persons chosen were such as whom all would consider objective and super partes. Trust in the media’s impartiality, however, had vanished long before “moderator” Candy Crowley helped Barack Obama sustain a lie in 2012’s second presidential debate by instantly and counterfactually “fact checking” Mitt Romney. How, not whether, Mainstream Media “moderators” push the agendas of the Democratic Establishment they represented is the only question. Indeed, by 2012 it was difficult to avoid the sense that the media, Fox News included, was focusing negative coverage on the most conservative candidate who happened to be leading in the polls at any given time.
So, as Megyn Kelly’s team prepared for the first debate of the 2016 cycle, and as trumping Donald Trump’s challenge to the Republican Establishment became that Establishment’s overriding concern, it was clear that Fox’s “moderators” would be the most intrusive ever, and that their push of their employers’ agenda and their “take down” of their least favorite candidate would be explicit. In both regards, the Fox team broke new ground and established precedents that should lead us to scrap the post 1960 format.
The team began by demanding that whoever might not support the Republican Party’s eventual nominee raise his hand. Who, one wonders, empowered these “moderators” to demand an oath of loyalty to the Party hierarchy? A public official’s oath, after all, is to “the Constitution of the United States,” not to party bosses. Then came questions to the candidates that were one version another of “when did you stop beating your wife?” Donald Trump, first target for elimination, was baited particularly. Next time, it will be someone else’s turn. The time after that, yet PAGE 1 another’s. Fox News’ treatment of presidential candidates has less to do with public policy than with the extent to which they match the Republican Establishment. This differs from the rest of the media’s treatment of politics only to the diminishing extent to which the Democratic and Republican Establishments differ.
Why ‘The Establishment’ Doesn’t Matter Anymore
Meanwhile, as the American people have become increasingly estranged from both Establishments, they look for someone, anyone, who takes seriously their concern with issues that these Establishments, jointly, have taken out of political play. These issues are big, heavy, and not articulable in sound bites.
What shall we do about immigration laws, many of which are not even enforced, that are changing this country’s way of life? What shall we do about a financial system that manufactures literally trillions dollars and channels them through banks and other institutions in ways that benefit a few while putting us all at risk? Is it a good idea to redefine marriage? That seems to have happened. Shouldn’t we have a say in that? Did any of us vote to treat unborn babies as humans for the purposive harvesting their hearts and livers but not human for the purpose of letting them be killed in the first place? Why and how have such questions been taken out of our hands as citizens? Is it not our right and duty to take them back? Such questions demand consideration in depth jointly by candidates and by citizens.
The Fox News debate showed the depths to which our political discourse has sunk and that its epitome, the presidential debates sound bites orchestrated by inevitably biased “moderators” is irremediable.
Any candidate possessed of enough testosterone could distinguish himself by withdrawing from any further such shows and declaring his intention of challenging opponents to Lincoln-Douglas style debates for the broadcast of which he would raise the cash. Might enough citizens support restoring American politics to the intellectual and moral level of 150 years ago?