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.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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