“The Newroom’s” debate style should be the standard

In Opinion
(Courtesy of HBO)
(Courtesy of HBO)

It is safe to say that after November, presidential elections will likely never be the same.

However, if America wants to avoid having another election cycle as convoluted as this one, there’s one thing that definitely needs to change: the debates themselves.

If an undecided voter this year had absolutely no knowledge of the presidential nominees other than the first two debates, all he or she would know for sure is that each of them is equally good at trash talking about the other.

If the last presidential debate set for Wednesday night is going to yield a viable candidate, it needs to overhaul this whole busted format and adopt a new unconventional one.

In short, HBO’s “The Newsroom” had it right, back in 2012.

The episode “The Blackout Part II: Mock Debate,” the fictional news network which the show centers around is being considered to host the 2012 Republican presidential primary debate.

The network’s anchor Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, wants to host the debate, but on his terms. He and his team of reporters present a mock debate to members of the RNC to illustrate their ideas.

“Questions have to be tougher, they have to be able to square their campaign rhetoric with facts, they have to be stopped when they’re not answering the question and they have to be called out when their answers contradict the facts,” McAvoy says.

In the scene, each of the reporters in the mock debate had spent two months researching a specific candidate on their positions and policies so they can answer questions much like the candidate would. Each of them stood at a podium and were wearing sweaters baring their candidate’s name. McAvoy then begins his questioning.

“There are no rules. I question a candidate until I’m done,” McAvoy said.

What follows is a montage of ruthless interrogation of the surrogate candidates. McAvoy asked specific questions geared towards the candidate, their past comments are called into question and he interrupts when they evade the question.

“Baseball players testifying about steroids in front of a house subcommittee are subject to surgery, I don’t know why presidential candidates aren’t,” McAvoy said.

The moderators of the next presidential debate should take a note from Mr. McAvoy.

In the second presidential debate, the candidates did an excellent job of doing exactly what McAvoy is trying to avoid.

Before the start of the second debate, the audience was asked not to clap or cheer as to keep from wasting time, but the real time wasters were the two speaking.

After the first question from one of the audience members about appropriate behavior modeling for children, each candidate used their response as a chance to dance around their version of a suitable answer and to hit each of their common talking points.

They also used every chance they got to call out each other’s faults instead of focusing on their own policies.

This type of “debating” would have been stopped immediately if it were taking place in front of McAvoy in lovely Aaron Sorkin-written reality, and it should have been stopped by the real-life moderators.

If the candidates aren’t going to hold themselves accountable, then someone else has to. The moderators need to not simply ask questions and politely keep the candidates on subject. They need to hold them to the flame, be knowledgeable of what they say, what the facts are and to not yield until the candidates offer a legitimate answer.

“Our job is to find the two candidates who will give the voters the best competing arguments and I don’t believe we’re seeing that. We have to put the candidates on a witness stand,” McAvoy said.

These words perhaps apply more to this election than they did to the one four years ago.

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