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Simple Fixes to Overly Dramatized Democratic Debates

August 9th, 2019 by dk

Nobody I know was happy with the first two sets of Democratic presidential debates. Most are hoping against hope that the field is winnowed sufficiently before the next debate(s) in September. We’re all tired of the circus spectacle — watching too many clowns exiting too small a car.

I don’t blame the number of candidates for the numbing nonsense we’ve seen so far. I blame the networks. I’m astonished that we allow networks to interrupt the presidential debate to sell commercials to the highest bidders.

Moderators drum up intra-party conflicts to liven up the action because that’s their job. Tension increases ratings. Viewers stay engaged, ready to be served up to the advertisers. Everybody wins, except democracy. The fabricated controversies are out of proportion and stripped of context.

Also-rans, positioned at the edges, lobbed incendiary assertions at the frontrunners in the center. Montana Gov.Steve Bullock accused Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren of “wish list economics.” Former Maryland representative John Delaney labeled their Medicare-for-all plan an “impossible promise.”

The next night New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio could barely be distinguished from the hecklers in the audience, badgering former vice president Joe Biden from one end. Author Marianne Williamson dismissed the whole event as nonsense from the other.

Those polling at less than one percent popularity had nothing to lose. The moderators egged them on to attack the frontrunners in the middle. Viewers did not gain a more nuanced understanding of the issues at hand.

If we can’t ask networks to forego the revenue they receive from advertisers, it’s not too late to make future debates more substantive and less silly.

The networks could use a journalist who is not on their payroll to moderate the debates they broadcast. There are plenty of print journalists who know the issues, but don’t care about ratings. They wouldn’t feel a need to drum up drama that could earn bonuses for their bosses.

It’s bad enough that ten candidates are elbowing one another for screen time. Do we really need three more voices in the room? A single moderator for each debate, who is not on the payroll of the broadcasting network, would do a better job.

That won’t happen, because the networks want to build their brands as much as the candidates do, so I have an even simpler plan that would curb the worst aspect of the debates we’ve seen so far. The Democratic National Committee could simply ban the split-screen video effect.

If a candidate on the end wants to attack a candidate in the middle, the reaction shot would have to widen to include the three or four candidates who are standing between them. Those wide-angle shots are less captivating, so networks will naturally try to avoid them.

When the two front-runners engage at center stage, nothing will change. Show candidates going toe-to-toe, but only those who actually are toe-to-toe. Viewers will see what audience members are seeing, not a special-effect video screen that heightens a tension that isn’t there, or shouldn’t be.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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