I write this fully aware that the media model of debate - the "joint press conference" as debate scholars have called it, is here to stay. And it's doubly worse because most people who watched the Fox News GOP debate (either one of them) got something out of them about the candidates that helped them align their views and size up their feelings about these candidates. As rhetorical events, these media debates are very valuable - they allow audiences opportunity to identify and divide with candidates based on their expressions of argument, identity, proof, or otherwise.
So this is not a post about how media debates are terrible. This is a post about how media debates are not great debates - but they so easily could be.
Here are three simple things Fox News or any media debate model host could do to improve the debate, and improve what we get out of the debates from the candidates.
1. Have A Singular, Common Topic for Everyone
Instead of just bounding around asking the candidates for their opinions on things, Set a topic, Announce it beforehand. Do some pieces on it on your channel. Have experts come in and brief the audience on the key factors involved in this topic. When the debate happens, the candidates and the viewers will both be well-informed. Everyone will get much more out of the debate in terms of figuring out who is worthy of support. It would help the candidates angle what they are talking about ahead of time, so you won't get answers that stray away from the thing you want the debate to be about.
But if one topic won't sustain a two hour debate program, have 2 or 3, even 4 topics and swap them out. Good debates that end not with agreement, but with value and insight, are based on agreement and common purpose. Two or more speakers working on the same question give everyone more insight into the issue, its value, and where the candidate sits in the view of the audience member.
2. Have Less Participants
Less people having to talk at once or share time means longer responses that hopefully might go deeper or, more importantly, spark deeper questioning and investigation on the issue by the audience. Tonight Fox moved in this direction by pairing off candidates against one another for direct exchanges. This was sometimes good, sometimes a bust. I think that doing it as a part of the debate format, along with the singular topic idea, would generate the sort of exchanges that benefit the election and the process.
If you want to have that many people in a debate, run it like a competition with different rounds for us to watch. Mix it up, go round-robin, but don't have so many people responding at once. Keeping it to a limited number of people helps a lot with the further suggestions I'm going to make - even if that limitation is just topics or time.
3. Assign Sides and Allow for Refutation
Debate is like an economy - it doesn't work unless there is active, continuous exchange that people believe is real. This could happen in televised political debates if one candidate was assigned to present his or her plan for an issue, and the other one could respond to it. Then the first candidate would get an opportunity to respond to the response - the act of refutation. Such an addition would provide a lot of depth and a lot more comparison would be forced, compared to a journalist asking a candidate to "respond to what he or she said about you 3 weeks ago." That's an invitation to speak about whatever you want. Instead, response being expected after critique means we get a chance to hear more detailed information about a policy from the candidate in a pressure situation. After this ends, the roles can reverse, and the same issue could be kept.
Refutation is an incredibly important part of debate because it allows a speaker to rebuild and engage the speech of an opponent directly. Without it, you really only have a claim-making festival instead of a debate: Speakers need opportunity to support claims in ways that they would not predict. Opponents directly refuting or critiquing their claims will give them a chance to make explanations that they might not have thought of as important, but audiences might.
In the end, debates are only as good as the clash they generate. I don't mean heat, or anger, or confrontation, but clash in terms of disagreement of all kinds. Its that expression of disagreement and the response to it, the shoring up of it, and the further articulation of the ideas involved that make debate far more than a showcase of ideas, but a very powerful tool for the investigation of reasons and the development of claims and other reasons that might not appear through solo investigation.
The current media debate format is great for rhetoric and identification with candidates. But it's only as good as the predictive power of the journalists and candidates involved. Debate humbles us all by revealing, through the generation of clash, issues and ideas that require reasoned discussion that we may never have thought of, and would not have pursued, on our own.