Television Is an Atrocious Format for Presidential Debates

By Conor Friedersdorf

What if candidates sparred in live, text-based exchanges?

tv full flickr Leslie Duss.png
Flickr / Leslie Duss

Why do we assume that presidential debates should be broadcast on and organized around television, the most vacuous medium in American life? In informal experiments, TV has been shown to decrease brain function so drastically that viewers routinely sit through Real Housewives marathons. TV increases suggestibility so much that Axe Body Spray ad campaigns are cost effective. TV is the place where physical attractiveness, affected theatrics, and body language matter, and where journalists are successful partly based on their ability to have good hair.
 
Yet it isn't just where we decide to hold our presidential debates. It is the only medium that is considered! It's no wonder that everything we remember about past debates is embarrassingly superficial. Ronald Reagan got angry and insisted he paid for a microphone. Another time he had a clever one-liner, deflecting concerns about his age by joking about "the youth and inexperience" of his opponent. Dan Quayle got told he was no Jack Kennedy. Michael Dukakis seemed unperturbed when asked a hypothetical about his wife being raped and killed. Al Gore sighed and physically approached George W. Bush. These are among the most memorable debate exchanges in recent history, and every last one ought to have been totally irrelevant to assessing the given candidates.  

On Twitter last night, Julian Sanchez wrote, "I basically feel about the debates the way Clarence Thomas feels about oral argument. Everything substantive is in the briefs; I don't care who's quicker on their feet in a verbal sparring match." In the GOP primary this year, the televised debates permitted Americans to get to know a bunch of candidates in a relatively efficient manner, and helped eliminate several who couldn't think on their feet well enough to be president.

But for general election purposes, I agree with Sanchez. I've set forth the reasons I won't be voting for Barack Obama. The fact that he didn't have much energy on a debate stage isn't among them. I won't support Mitt Romney either, and the possibility that lots of Americans changed their mind about a man who has been in public life for years based on the image he projected in a single televised appearance is another argument for doing away with televised debates. My preferred candidate, Gary Johnson, isn't a polished, experienced or accomplished TV debater.

What does that tell us? Not much.  

TV debates give lazy voters the illusion that they've done their homework in much the same way that a student assigned a classic novel can fool himself into thinking it's enough to watch the movie.

Televised debates aren't entirely without merit. They force candidates to answer questions on subjects they don't choose in a public forum (even if moderators frequently squander that opportunity). They occasionally tell us something about a politician's ability to think on his or her feet, sometimes afford candidates an ability to directly question one another, and force them to address a mass audience rather than targeting different messages to different micro-targets.

All these benefits could be gleaned from text-based debates. Sit the two candidates in separate rooms. Give each computers without Web access, but that can communicate with one another.  

Provide something like Instant Messenger or G-chat.

Let a moderator pose text-based questions. The candidates could type in their respective answers in parts of the debate, and interact with one another in other portions. There could be a per-answer character limit, or a total number of words permitted over the course of the debate -- once you're out, your opponent can use the rest of their words unchallenged. Or you could get an extra 500 words at the end to annotate the responses your opponent gave earlier on.

The possible variations are endless.

And don't tell me they'd all be too boring to keep the attention of voters. TV debates are boring to everyone but political junkies, and text can be read much more quickly than video can be watched.

Would there be downsides to this format?

Sure.

There isn't any perfect approach to a presidential debate.

But I think text would easily prove more substantive than broadcast. Shouldn't at least some debates be conducted that way? There'd be a nice transcript at the end that voters could consult. The political press wouldn't waste time talking about body language, facial expressions, dress, or other nonsense that is covered as if it's important because it's covered as if it's important. And it isn't as if we won't have plenty of opportunities to see presidential candidates on TV.

It's easy to see why televised debate caught on. Now we've got something even better -- the substance of text-based communications, but instantly transmutable to the masses. It's superior for the same reason that it's better to hire from a resume and cover letter than a slick video introduction.

Disagree?

You'll have an easy time registering your counterarguments in comments below, which wouldn't be true if I'd said this on TV.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/10/television-is-an-atrocious-format-for-presidential-debates/263477/