- - Thursday, September 17, 2015

The challenges of devising a presentation structure for a political “debate” on television which is fair to 11 candidates, informative for the American people, and which avoids being boring is indeed a formidable one. It’s a challenge which CNN failed to meet on Wednesday night.

Clearly, the editorial decision was made to play the event for what they believed was entertaining television. This decision meant that that nearly all the questions were framed by referring to an actual or assumed statement by one candidate which seemed to either insult or at least criticize another’s person or position or background. This approach was aimed at producing “good” television. There were several problems with this approach, the main one being that the questions were inevitably accused by the principals of misstatements or downright lies. Second, the person questioned sometimes fell for the ploy and responded in kind, causing what the TV people wanted, but what the rest of us found irrelevant. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s outburst to stop a Donald Trump/Carly Fiorina nasty exchange was rightly applauded by the house.

What the public wants to know is what each of these people want to do to solve America’s problems. We don’t appreciate a little TV anchor chirping “Thank you, Mr/Ms.__________” right in the middle of a candidate’s statement about his or her solution to a national problem. And to do this over and over again ad nauseam! What is being interrupted is exactly what we want to hear. We certainly don’t appreciate a TV person getting in the way of hearing what we came to hear.

This is not really the fault of the TV person. It is really the fault of the design of the program. If each person gets enough time — 3 or 4 minutes — at least once in the format to explain in some detail his or her answer, so be it. Even if that means fewer times at bat. Dr. Ben Carson’s observation that the conducting serious discussions in “sound bites” is not only difficult but impossible correctly pinpoints the primary problem with these events.

All in all, this “debate” did us all some good by letting us see the candidates – all 11 of them — in a verbal free-for-all. On that level, it was more illustrative of personalities than of their answers to the most troubling issues of our time. Not that such insights into candidates’ personalities are not valuable. It is particularly revealing of who is spoiling for a fight and who isn’t. However, there are other ways to encourage exhibitions of personality and character — without attempting to initiate a schoolyard brawl. One way might be to give each candidate a chance to fully articulate a position and then seek other opinions. If there is disagreement, let it be instigated by the candidates themselves, not by the traffic director.

A final word: These events are an extremely important part of the long, hard decision-making process that voters must undertake in the coming elections, because they do get an opportunity to observe all contenders together and separately. So, let’s pay attention to “good facilitation” instead of “good television.”

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