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  • Last modified 34 days ago (Oct. 22, 2020)

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It’s time to do some de-baiting

Forget whether organizers should mute candidates’ microphones at the next presidential debate. They might try muting the moderator’s microphone instead.

Yes, President Trump can be rude and crude interrupting former Vice President Biden. Less reported but equally true, Biden has a tendency to do the same. You’d think the oldest future presidents-elect in history might have a bit more maturity, but older apparently doesn’t mean wiser — or more polite.

Still, our largely unappealing slate of candidates may not be solely responsible for why much of the electorate might be tempted to darken the oval next to Mickey Mouse’s name if he were to appear on the ballot.

Among the key reasons our debates have turned into something indistinguishable from WWE Smackdown are overzealous moderators intent on asking “gotcha” questions in rapid fire.

Before one candidate can provide an appropriately nuanced response, the other has to chime in, and the moderator ends up impatiently moving on to the next “gotcha.” It’s lather, rinse, repeat — just without the rinse.

That may be an accepted way of asking questions in one-on-one interviews. But when moderating a debate, it’s incumbent on the moderator not to create headlines but to foster an environment in which each candidate has a chance to clearly articulate his or her position.

That means general questions, like: “What’s your plan for how we will ever be able to pay for all the bailouts being offered during the pandemic?”

Pose the same question — the answer to which we would love to hear — to each candidate. After both have responded, ask each of them one clarifying question to pin down specifics that might have seemed overly vague. Then move on.

Debates conducted this way would be a welcome change from the increasingly rancid rhetoric of the body impolitic. Discourse no longer emphasizes the dreams candidates might have but rather the nightmares they see if their opponents were elected. Planks have become launching platforms for mud, which for both parties consists mainly of carefully phrased half-truths focusing on isolated incidents only tangentially related to issues.

In many ways, we journalists are responsible. As a group we’ve lost track of our responsibility to inform and instead have focused on our opportunity to startle. News does have to be somehow surprising. “New” is the key portion of the word “news.” But the goal can’t be merely to surprise. It must be to inform.

Locally, we’ve made a concerted effort this year to bring candidates together and give them every opportunity to elaborate on their views while at the same time trying not to let them get away with overly vague statements focused on issues other than those likely to come up in their official roles. We hope this has helped you make a more informed decision.

But in some quarters, journalists seem carried away with their role of afflicting the comfortable, comforting the afflicted, and seeing themselves as a fourth estate, whose constant job is to challenge everything — not to shed light on solutions but to wallow in problems.

Is it any surprise that elections now seem to come down to a choice between the lesser of two evils, where the main issue is not a candidates’ own strengths but his or her guilt by association with some other political figure?

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Oct. 22, 2020

 

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