Reimagining Televised Debates

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by Conor Friedersdorf

Ta-Nehisi Coates notes that television forces those who appear on it to argue "directly, and pointedly, in a short amount of time." This shapes how debates unfold because "concision actually favors the spouting of conventional thinking."

...let's say I go on television and say "We can salute the bravery of the Confederate Army, while deploring their aims." This is a fairly conventional point which relies on relatively established mores. They are, in this case, 1.) Slavery was bad 2.) The men who died at Gettysburg, Antietam, and Vicksburg on both sides, were brave. Or some such. Moreover it makes me sound fair-minded in my willingness to allow for a kind of moral out for all sides, regardless of their sympathies. 

But let's say I go on television and say, "Confederate bravery is neither unique, nor in and of itself, praise-worthy. Mohammad Atta was brave. The kamikazes were brave. But bravery in service of evil should never be commemorated." This is a problem. Even in writing it, I've had to take up more space then the previous assertion. Likely, I could edit it down to a sentence or two. But I leave it this way to show how much space and time it takes me to make the more contentious point, one that challenges our accepted thinking, (the 9/11 bombers were brave) and leaves no room for an honorable retreat.
Would this problem be solved if we stopped thinking of televised debate as something that is supposed to happen live? Imagine if written debates unfolded in real time via live chats and were presented to the audience as they unfolded. The quality of thought would suffer tremendously, as would the reader experience.

What if a television network tried to run a debate show like the back-and-forths that sometimes occur in print? I'd be assigned a CNN producer, who would help me to produce an opening argument on a given issue. That two minute clip, complete with polished argument and visual elements to complement it, would be sent to my sparring partner, who would produce her own rebuttal. Perhaps it could unfold over three rounds. Viewers could vote for the winner at the end. The whole exchange might take 10 or 15 minutes. And if executed correctly, the quality of argument and entertainment would be far better than any of the talking head exchanges currently broadcast on cable.

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