Ben Voth: Campaigns should return to real debates

SMU's communication studies department chair talks about why the current style of campaign debates do a disservice to the American public.

The American public is suffering a great disservice by the practice of “presidential debates” presently served over the nation’s airwaves and the Internet. These public spectacles serve to focus on two primary elements: the celebrity journalists of television and the agenda of the journalistic community against the impulses of the general public.

Since TV debate’s inception in 1960, journalists have made their own personalities and agendas a pivotal focus of them. That habit has escalated over the past 50 years to create a logjam in civil discourse that now essentially guarantees that the public will never see political candidates truly debate...

A debate has four essential ingredients: a topic, two sides advocating for and against the topic, equal speech times for the two sides, and a means of adjudication — typically one or more judges.

Despite the fact that public perception of the media is at all-time lows, journalists continue to interject themselves into these spotlights of political argument. A Pew Research poll released in September found record levels of public anger at the media:

Sixty-six percent of the public judge the press as providing inaccurate stories, up from 34 percent in 1985.

Seventy-seven percent judge the press to favor one side over the other, up from 53 percent in 1985.

Eighty percent judge the press to be influenced by powerful interests, up from 53 percent in 1985.

Sixty-three percent judge the press to be politically biased in their reporting.

For the first time in history, the public is equally divided as to whether news organizations help or hurt democracy. At the heart of our public sense of that democracy is the capacity for debate. Placing three to 10 candidates on a stage simultaneously while two to 10 journalists pepper them with questions in front of TV cameras is not a debate. These events are selective slices of rhetorical combat framed by antagonistic journalists trying to juxtapose their own personal sense of the public against a perceived position of the candidate to whom it is posed.

While such conduct is consistent with a free press and widely available on any number of news shows, it should not be touted as a true debate. Spectacles like these simply further anger the public against the media and erode the vital civil processes of our democracy.

The legendary debates of Lincoln and Douglas drew massive crowds but were not orchestrated or controlled by media. They lasted for hours as candidates exhausted themselves and their audiences on the substance of their positions. Today’s journalists seek to blunt the obvious criticism of bias by having viewers send in their comments or even having “citizens” ask questions from the studio audience. Is there anyone left in the public who is still deceived by this? The hundreds and even thousands of solicitations from the public are chosen by the media managers and presented as “representative.”

The nation’s civic body would be well-served by some modicum of a return to true public debate. Candidates should debate candidates, not debate journalists or selected “citizens.” Ironically, one of the more popular forms of one-on-one debate in college is known as Lincoln Douglas. It takes less than one hour to perform and allows two individuals to argue, cross-examine and effectively debate one another without the interference of outside parties.

True debates should feature candidates, not journalists, with the reporters there only to record the event. Candidates would do well to pair up and square off on college campuses under the direction of debate coaches rather than continue to work with our current media minders.

Ben Voth is the director of debate at Southern Methodist University and chairman of the communication studies division in the Meadows School of the Arts. He may be contacted at