After the 96-minute firestorm that was the first debate between President Trump and Joe Biden, the commentary was predictably partisan. However, both sides seemingly agreed on two things — Chris Wallace was a participant not a moderator and the format was bad. While neither of these failures should actually come as a surprise in our modern media era, no one really expressed why.
Cable TV segments have completely changed how people process information. We no longer have an attention span longer than 2-minute videos, and everything must be expressed in talking points and 30-45 second quips. This isn’t particularly productive to a deep-dive into the meat of the issues.
If we’re honest, most people tuned in to see President Trump take down Joe Biden or vice versa, not to participate in democracy with higher expectations. It was the beginning of the political World Series and fans tuned in to see their team score.
But the final outcome gets lost in a medium that isn’t showing the game in a long-form rational sequence, almost as if each play was strung together in a packaged, out-of-order method, or clipped out of context. The one-liners and instant-replays immediately turned into merchandising opportunities and short clips were played on repeat as pundits gave their own 2-minute analysis, based on which team they already preferred.
This is the failure of media being too over-produced and cable news hosts like Wallace thinking their job is to be a newsmaker instead of a facilitator. Rather than allowing Trump and Biden to have a lengthy conversation with back and forth (even if there was mud-slinging and name-calling included), Wallace attempted to compartmentalize the topics and neatly produce segments, which turned out to be an utter failure.
This is because real life dialogue doesn’t work that way. Imagine sitting around your family’s Thanksgiving table and hashing out a topic everyone is passionate about, and the head of table consistently interrupting and demanding “that’s for the next segment.” You would never get anywhere and be constantly frustrated that it’s not a conversation anymore — it’s just a sort segment.
But that’s how the cable news cycle works. If you watch TV with this in mind, you’ll immediately see how most shows that have “debate format” between a Republican and Democrat (or even panels of commentators) don’t allow a natural dialogue — it’s all over-produced.
Usually, the host begins with an introduction, then a video clip, then asks one of the guests to comment (often with very editorialized and biased questions). If the guest goes over the one-minute mark, the host interrupts because each segment is so short. Then, instead of giving the other guest the opportunity to respond, the host asks an entirely different question.
This leaves the viewer without the other side’s perspective and without any real debate, and instead leaves the show and the guest with clean, independent short clips that can ignore anything that came before and pushed out on social media or in a commercial. That’s television.
That’s what so keenly frustrated many old-school viewers who tuned in thinking they were promised a 90-minute conversation and back-and-forth. Even if we’re conditioned to consume media in soundbites, the debate was supposed to go deeper. We all wanted to see President Trump and Joe Biden face off, not get interrupted every 30 seconds by a “moderator” host that wanted to change the subject.
Writer Nancy Pearcey put it best when she said in her book Saving Leonardo:
“When moral convictions are reduced to arbitrary preferences, then they can no longer be debated rationally. Persuasion gives way to propaganda. Politics becomes little more than marketing. Political operators resort to emotional manipulation, using slick rhetoric and advertising techniques to bypass people’s minds and ‘hook’ their feelings. […] No wonder American voters are disillusioned. In a book called Why Americans Hate Politics, E.J. Dionne says, ‘Americans hate politics as it is now practiced because we have lost all sense of the public good.’ Without the conviction that there exists an objective good, public debate disintegrates into a cacophony of warring voices.”
That’s exactly what we experienced Tuesday, and exactly what the producers intended.
It would have been genuinely more productive in some sense to take the whole “debate” as B-roll and let each side clip out whatever moments they preferred. That’s what happened anyway in the post-debate analysis, and that’s why absolutely ridiculous assertions were trending on Twitter, like “Trump fails to denounce white supremacy,” when the entire video in context showed him stating immediately that he would, as he has repeatedly before.
The cable news format debates aren’t helping deepen understanding of the wide differences in viewpoints between President Trump and Joe Biden on fundamental issues like morality, the role of government, economic prosperity, and preserving our individual fundamental rights. We’re just pushing out noise.
The Commission on Presidential Debates released a statement the day following the debate, saying they are considering changing rules for future debates. But the debate rules don’t matter nearly as much as the format and crystalizing the intended goal of debates.
If the goal is to produce a few great soundbites, then the debate was a phenomenal success. If the goal is actually showing clearly where President Trump and Joe Biden stand (or refuse to stand) on the issues that Americans should care about and increasing our understanding of actual policy that affects us, then we need to revive actual policy debates and give Americans a 90-minute conversation.
Jenna Ellis (@JennaEllisEsq) is a constitutional law attorney, senior legal adviser to the Trump 2020 campaign, and personal counsel to President Trump. She is a senior fellow at the Falkirk Center, special counsel to Thomas More Society, and author of “The Legal Basis for a Moral Constitution.”
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.
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