The New Format fallacy

Back this summer, as part of his less-than-subtle attempt to tell American journalism how to fix itself, Aaron Sorkin inserted his vision of an idealized debate into last year’s Republican primary. The whole thing turned into a case study in how much better The Newsroom was at identifying the problems in modern journalism than it was at coming up with solutions, and how the show managed to be half-right and yet go horribly wrong. But considering what did and didn’t work in this week’s real presidential debate, it’s worth taking another look.

I mentioned right after the debate that I thought its biggest problem was the disengaged approach from moderater Jim Lehrer. That mattered more than usual because this debate actually did include a kind of revolutionary new format, which mostly did away with the tightly structured response times we’re used to from previous presidential debates. It’s a promising trend, but it means we really do need the moderator to play a more agressive role.

Most of the commentary about Wednesday’s debate focused on the performances of the candidates, with even President Obama’s supporters generally feeling he gave a pretty weak showing. A colleague from my editorial page days laid out the assessment pretty thoroughly — “if Romney came to the Mile-High City with a cannon, the president arrived with plastic cutlery.” He also explains the roots of both strategies: Obama tried to stay above the fray, but ended up looking passive and aloof, while Romney was trying to be forceful and convince voters to give him a serious look.

What’s interesting about this assessment is that it doesn’t really depend on what the candidates actually said. Romney’s attacks on Obama weren’t particularly tough, or even consistent. He even went out of his way to blur the lines between them, saying he’d keep elements of the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law, and spent a third of the debate insisting that he didn’t want a huge tax cut. Obama, on the other hand, gave the impression that he’d rehearsed a bunch of great rebuttals to arguments that Romney didn’t bother making.

If all this only meant that Obama had an embarrassing night, I’d be fine with it. There’s three more debates coming, and if Team Obama gets outmaneuvered this thoroughly in all of them, then that’s on them. But what bothers me is that we, the voters, missed a serious opportunity to get a clear picture of what really sets the candidates apart.

The new debate format, in which the discussion is broken up into segments with time allocated for a mostly freeform discussion, is pretty much exactly what we needed, since the old model tended to involve the candidates pre-rehearsing a bunch of speeches and spending most of their time talking past each other. If the candidates are actually having a discussion — a debate, if you will — then they need to actually respond to each other’s arguments or risk looking silly.

Which is pretty much what happened to Obama. On that tax cut, for instance, he spent about half an hour repeating some variation of “Do you want someone who’s priority is $5 trillion in military spending and tax cuts for rich people?” and Romney immediately denying that he wants to cut taxes. There’s an actual disagreement behind this, and you actually could have picked up on most of it from what the candidates said in the debate — if you paid really close attention and maybe made a flowchart. But it shouldn’t be that hard.

Ideally, an active moderator would be directing candidates to respond to the specific argument that their opponent just made, so as to establish the contrast between them quickly and concisely. Lehrer’s approach on Wednesday seemed to be to let the candidates argue in circles around the issue, ask if they thought they disagreed with each other, and then ask another question. The questions themselves were so vague that, often as not, Obama and Romney would just pick up the argument they’d just been having anyway.

Moderating a debate is hard. Doing it effectively means facilitating an insightful discussion between the candidates without monopolizing the conversation. Wednesday’s debate demonstrated what happens when the moderator can’t facilitate, and the fictional debate in The Newsroom is actually a great cautionary tale about what happens when the moderator gets too aggressive — fictional anchorman Will MacAvoy spends the whole debate arguing with the candidates, as though what our political discourse really needs is more zingers from the moderator.

It’s no accident that these two approaches represent two different philosophies of journalism — the MacNeil/Lehrer model where you get a couple people with opposing viewpoints, give them a microphone and let them sort things out with a minimal filter, and the prosecutorial approach that assumes you need to badger people into being honest. For a debate, which is supposed to be a discussion between the candidates, the first approach obviously fits a lot better; but there’s a way to guide the conversation without monopolizing it, one that can actually help the candidates make their cases. For this new format work, and for us to start getting really great debates, that needs to start happening.

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