Enough with the fake debates

Bruce Bartlett
Posted: Dec 28, 2005 12:05 AM

If there is one thing that the left and right, Republicans and Democrats all agree about these days, it is that there is too much polarization in public discourse -- too much name-calling and not enough civil discussion of the issues. A key reason for this, in my opinion, is the nature of cable news, which thrives on five-minute debates between polar opposites.

 There are several reasons why this is destructive. First, few intelligent arguments can be made in such a short time span. Once you have shared time with your opponent and the host puts in his two cents, you may only have at most two one-minute segments in which to make your case.

 Under these circumstances, you cannot even begin to do much of anything except make a couple of sound-bite points. These must necessarily be broad-brush in nature, devoid of any nuance, and must avoid anything remotely technical. This tends to make one's arguments sound simplistic, even if they are not.

 Moreover, some arguments require a chain of logic to reach a valid conclusion and may demand background knowledge or factual information to be appreciated and understood. Needless to say, time constraints prohibit the former, and decreasing educational standards mean that one cannot assume the latter even about such basics as the nature of the federal government or our nation's history.

 Consequently, one is usually forced to jump straight to one's conclusion in a cable news debate and assert one's points without being able to develop them or provide essential facts or the logical steps that might convince the open-minded, ignorant or undecided on your issue.

 Another problem is that almost everyone who appears on television is now trained to control the agenda when appearing on camera. They know that when the camera is on them, they can pretty much say absolutely anything they want to say. Often, this means rote recitation of talking points that may have nothing to do with the issue at hand or anything the host or one's opponent may have said.

 It is also easy to make outrageous claims and cite bogus facts or statistics in support of one's position, knowing that your opponent may not have time to correct you. And even if he does, it prevents him from making the points he wanted to make and forces him to argue on your terms. In one case, my opponent accused me on camera of lying. Off camera, he conceded that I was right. I won't appear with that person again.

 Further degrading the usefulness of cable debates is the fact that participants are often mismatched in terms of stature. On one side, you might have a college professor or think tank scholar who is a recognized expert in his field. On the other, you might have some nobody with no real expertise from an organization that exists only as a cell phone number to a booker. The debate format tends to make people believe that the two are of equal stature, downgrading the views of the true expert, while elevating those of the hack.

 For this reason, I now demand to know who I may be debating before agreeing to appear in a cable debate. If it is not someone I recognize as a competent peer, I won't do it. Many others in my position feel the same way, which is one reason why there tends to be fewer and fewer real experts engaging in cable face-offs, and more and more nobodies labeled as party "consultants" or "strategists."

 This also results from the fact that genuine experts will too often agree with each other on basic points, even if they come from contrasting philosophical perspectives. They will at least agree on the facts and the proper analytical framework. Their differences are usually over orders of magnitude, rather than on fundamentals. This makes bad television from the point of view of cable news channels, which crave fireworks and sharp differences. Shouting matches are encouraged, agreement is discouraged.

 Unfortunately, this leads viewers to think that that there is no real truth and everything is just a matter of opinion, leaving them free to choose whichever side is most conducive to their own personal beliefs, prejudices or preferences.

 One reform I would propose is to cut back on contrived debates. Why not interview those with opposing views separately, and give each more than a minute or two to make their point without having to respond to another person's debating tactics? And how about encouraging interviewers to intervene when blatant errors or falsehoods are offered as facts?

 I think these reforms would raise the level of discourse and the quality of those willing to appear on cable programs by weeding out some of the hacks whose only knowledge on a subject comes from their party's talking points.