Debate 2020: Night of Insults, Interruptions and … Information?

This column expresses the views of Gene Policinski, senior fellow for the First Amendment, Freedom Forum.

The first night of “Debate 2020” is in the books — and it was one for the books … perhaps a comic book.

A slugfest, a bitter spat, a toe-to-toe faceoff marked by insults and jabbing exchanges. An unfocused, dispiriting demonstration of the polarization of the nation.

But did the American people hear or learn anything new? And do we have a better measure of the candidates?

A quick sampling of broadcast and online news reports and social media posts showed only one likely “winner” — any person who can get the Commission on Presidential Debates to provide future moderators with a candidate mute button for use in debates No. 2 and No. 3, if they are held. Who lost? Voters.

We have presidential debates for reasons rooted in the First Amendment: Candidates speaking freely, creating a better-informed electorate, casting ballots with the benefit of first-hand information from those seeking office.

Nothing in that purpose would seem to call for constantly deploying personal insults and repeated interruptions as a debating “tactic.” Nor does that purpose find any value in cable TV’s rancorous post-debate spin, using selected clips to buttress pre-programmed talking points, or in the pointless pronouncements on the winner and loser of the night.

There are two more scheduled meetings between former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump: Oct. 15 and Oct. 22. The vice-presidential candidates are to have a single debate on Oct. 7.

How do we make the remaining meetings more productive? Maybe we need to look to earlier years for guidance.

In 1928, the League of Women Voters sponsored weekly, 30-minute national radio presidential debates on NBC — but without the actual candidates, Herbert Hoover and Al Smith. Speakers in the 10-month series ranged from college students to newspaper columnists to political surrogates. Accounts of many of those programs show discussions of real issues and actual policies.

The first televised presidential debates didn’t occur until 1960, between Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, and Sen. John F. Kennedy, the Democratic candidate. There were four debates over several months. Questions involved a panel of journalists. There were no audiences. And from that starting point, the debates came under fire.

Critics complained then, as some do today, that the debate questions were being posed by selected network “stars,” and not by reporters who actually reported on the candidates on a daily or regular basis — and thus were much more equipped to hold the candidates accountable for prior statements or policies.

And analysts of the first TV debate, to an estimated audience of 70 million, say image won over substance: Kennedy was considered by many to have won because Nixon, who had been ill, appeared nervous and wan, while Kennedy seemed youthful and healthy. Radio listeners rated Nixon the winner, giving some credence to the idea that issues took a back seat to image on the new media of that era.

The often-mythologized Lincoln-Douglas debates are sometimes offered as examples of serious exchanges, but historians have another view. Presidential scholar Harold Holzer has written of those meetings as “brutally sarcastic, featuring highly personal attacks rather than elevated discourse.”

Sound sadly familiar?

One unexpected development of this first debate was most visible on social media, where Fox News’s Chris Wallace, the moderator, came under fire. Wallace often struggled to maintain the planned six-segment focus and two-minute remarks for each without interruption.

At least eight times, Wallace lectured the candidates to follow the debate rules — more often asking Trump than Biden by my count — to “let him finish, sir,” and reminding Trump that “your campaign agreed to these rules, sir.” Even that phrasing was found lacking by those noting the lack of “sir” when Wallace asked Biden to allow Trump to speak uninterrupted.

Social media also figured into pre- and post-debate strategies for both sides. Politico reported that the Trump campaign bought out the most expensive digital ad space, including YouTube’s homepage Tuesday. The report also said that “Biden campaign’s Wednesday digital ad buy included homepage takeovers on many of the most popular sites on the web including the most expensive digital ad space of all — the YouTube homepage — (to) which the Trump campaign held on Tuesday. The Biden campaign also bought the homepage ad space on AOL, Yahoo, CNN, Fox News, Pandora, Univision, Reddit, The Daily Mail, CBS Sports and more.”

Ironically, the real takeaway impact from the evening’s debate — described by CNN’s Jake Tapper as “a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck” — is whether the remaining two presidential debates will go forward without major changes in the already-set “two-minute exchanges without interruption” format.

Late Wednesday the debate commission said it intends to implement unspecified measures to ensure more order in upcoming debates. Yet to be determined:  Are the new controls acceptable to the candidates.

Any repetition of last night’s chaos – or having to vote with the “benefit” of this single, deeply uninformative event – ill-serves the principled purpose  of the debates envisioned under the First Amendment:  A free exchange in the marketplace of ideas by candidates staking out their positions and policies.

Gene Policinski is a senior fellow for the First Amendment at the Freedom Forum, and president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum Institute. He can be reached at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.

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