EDITORIAL: Critiquing the quality of presidential debates

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The third Republican presidential debate was held this past Wednesday, and the heated criticism normally dished between candidates was instead directed to the debate’s moderators. Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Chris Christie and others teamed up, so to speak, to fend off presumably unfair questions. Trump was asked if he’s running “a comic-book version of a presidential campaign,” and Christie lamented being asked about fantasy football when bigger issues, like unemployment and ISIS, still loom at large. 

The quality of a debate stems largely from the questions asked, and from the people asking them. CNN’s Todd Graham referred to the moderators as “neophytes” and called the debate one of the worst he’s seen “in 24 years of analyzing presidential debates.” CNBC sponsored the debate, and therefore supplied the moderators. 

Perhaps the more relevant question, however, is who sponsored CNBC. The answer: The Commission on Presidential Debates (a pretty straightforward title, really), a “nonprofit, nonpartisan, 501(c)(3) corporation,” according to their website. 

For the past seven rounds of presidential debates (from 1988 to 2012), the CPD has sponsored them all. The mission of the CPD is “to provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners,” and their purpose is “to sponsor and produce debates” and “to undertake research and educational activities relating to the debates.” 

As an editorial board, we ask this question: Why put 10 people on stage for a two hour debate? 

To draw a relevant, Millennial analogy, imagine watching a Netflix show with 10 main characters and trying to keep track of them all. Doesn’t seem like it would be a good show, would it? How can CNBC provide “the best possible information” if they are dividing speaking time among 10 people? 

These debates have become media circuses, even though we have to wait another year before we can actually vote. There is nothing wrong with being an informed citizen and taking time to research candidates early before voting time. It’s hard to actually become informed, however, when nothing substantive arises from the discourse. 

Debates should be one of the most important mechanisms of our country’s election process, but instead they have become opportunities for drinking games. Such presentations of shallow political discourse make it easier for voters to feel apathy toward the election. Thinking politically has become a laundry list of superficial buzz words, and evidence of this can be found both on the television screen and in everyday conversations. 

Who will hold the candidates accountable, if not the moderators? The answer, as cliche as it may sound, is the American people. We cannot accept surface level, stereotypical debates. The CPD needs to take their jobs more seriously, whether this means they take more time to select stronger moderators or becoming more ruthless about who actually deserves to stand on stage to talk before our country.