Saturday, October 04, 2008

Imagining what a real debate might be like.

People who grow up in the USA knowing only the bizarrely bland events called debates that are orchestrated by the corporte plutocrats called "the main stream media" can only have a vague sense that surely there must be a better way to do it.

Indeed there is. It is called having a "debate" everywhere else in the world.

People who have been on high school or college debate teams are the small minority of Americans who know that there is a long tradition of debating that ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, and FOX totally ignore in their propagandized sanitations that they call debates.

Imagine what a real debate would be like.

In the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates in their campaign for the US Senate, that ranged over several weeks across seven different cities in Illinois, the 3-hour debates began with the opening speaker speaking for an hour, the second speaker for 90 minutes, and the opening speaker then closed with 30 minutes. There were no moderators at all.

This well know example begs the question why do we need moderators? What is the role of the moderator?

Among the other traditions of debate in the English speaking world is the Oxford Union style of debating. For a great online source of how this works see the Doha Debates moderated with the superlative skills of Tim Sebastion.

The Doha Debates are a public forum for dialogue and freedom of speech in Qatar.

They are chaired by the internationally renowned broadcaster Tim Sebastian, formerly of the BBC's HARDTalk programme, and held in the headquarters of the Qatar Foundation in Doha each month during the academic year.

For the past three years, the Doha Debates have been providing a platform for serious discussion of the hottest issues in the Arab and Islamic worlds, striving to be both controversial and informative. They have gained a huge international following through their broadcast on BBC World - the BBC's international television channel.

The Doha Debates are modeled on the Oxford Union debates. A motion is presented to the 350-strong audience and two speakers argue on behalf of the motion and two speak against it. Tim Sebastian questions the speakers on their positions, then opens the debate to questions from the audience. Finally, the audience votes for or against the motion, based on the merit of the arguments they have heard. Our invited speakers are highly regarded academics, politicians, religious figures, government officials, policy experts and journalists from around the world.

What we now have are highly orchestrated debates with the moderator asking the same simple-minded questions to each candidate who gets about 90 seconds to reply. Instead of being a Devil's Advocate, the moderator in American debates seems to be there to keep the debate bland and unexciting. The candidate's answer is not challenged by the moderator, because they seem to fear being called biased by one side or the other.

You have to see Tim Sebastian in action to fully appreciate what a really skilled moderator can do. After each side makes its introductry statement Mr. Sebastian takes the role of Devil's Advocate and really peppers the person with pointed questions aimed at that person's weak links. When playing Devil's Advocate Mr. Sebastian shows a devilishly sly smile as he zings the presenter in the soft spots of their argument while they dodge and weave attempting hide their logical inadequacies. This is the real balance and objectivity of moderation: equal jabbing to each candidate, not the phony objectivitiy of letting the candidate answer without challenge.

What might a real Presidential Debate look like?

First, of all, the debates would have to be open to legitimate presidential candidates other than the two parties that are now dictating the format for the debates. For example, one way to determine who would debate would be to take the candidates who are on the ballot in a minimum number of states, such as in enough states to have the number of electoral college votes to win if they won each state they were on the ballot in.

Then, in the debate format, the candidates would go in random order and begin with a 5 to 10 minute (depending on the number of candidates) statement of their platform and most important concerns. Then before going to the next candidate, the moderator like Mr. Sebastian would take 5 to 10 minutes to question the candidate on weak points of their positions or logic. Then the next candidate woould make their opening statement followed by being questioned hotly by the moderator.

The next segment could include one question by each of the candidates to be answered by the oppponants.

The last segment of the dabate could be questions from the audience with the moderator making sure that the questions are distributed evenly and most importantly, to make sure that the candidates' answers don't get a free ride absent logic.

Most important is the role of the moderator who establishes the debate's contextual culture where there is no free ride and the moderator is able to question sharply each candidate on any point.

Again, to see how a real moderator can function as a fair Devil's Advocate aimed at each side, see any one of the Doha Debates such as "This House believes the Palestinians risk becoming their own worst enemy"

This is just one way to imagine an alternative debate format. Basically just about anything would be better than the debates we have today that are planned by the two ruling parties to be as bland and nonconfrontational as they can be allowing the candidates to simply present their talking points, even when the candidates makes mistakes or outrageously absurd claims.

For example, Sarah Palin misnamed Gen. McKirnan, calling him "McClellan" twice, but Joe Biden couldn't correct her without looking "ungentlemanly" and the moderator would be believed by Republicans to be taking sides. The result is those listening to the debate were never informed that Palin could not remember the name of the general she was claiming to be quoting.

Also, Palin was able to get away with this absurity:
Now you said recently that higher taxes or asking for higher taxes or paying higher taxes is patriotic. In the middle class of America which is where Todd and I have been all of our lives, that's not patriotic. Patriotic is saying, government, you know, you're not always the solution. In fact, too often you're the problem so, government, lessen the tax burden and on our families and get out of the way and let the private sector and our families grow and thrive and prosper.

CNN Transcript of Palin, Biden debate

A moderator like Tim Sebastian would certainly have asked if she really meant to say that John McCain is unpatriotic for, you know, asking government to be the solution to the financial crisis by voting for the $700 billion bailout bill?

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