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First Debate Calls for More than Cutting Off Mics

"The televised debates are reality television, whether we want to admit it or not. And to pretend otherwise is to allow Trump to carry the day virtually unopposed."

US President Donald Trump and Democratic Presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden exchange arguments during the first presidential debate at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, on September 29, 2020. (Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

After the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, the predominant U.S. media response to the debate was, like the global public response, one of horror: “An epic moment of national shame” (Politico, 9/30/20); “The Worst Presidential Debate Ever” (Poynter, 9/30/20); “A shitshow” (CNN, 9/29/20).

But while many were willing to pin the blame where it belonged—on Trump, who interrupted, name-called, lied, and refused to follow any rules of debate or decorum—some of the nation’s most prominent outlets clung desperately to the same absurd even-handedness that has gotten us into this shitshow in the first place.

“Trump, Biden Clash in Contentious First Debate: The two candidates constantly spoke over each other in exchanges more notable for rancor than policy nuance,” ran the September 30 Wall Street Journal headline. (Or, in their print edition: “Trump, Biden Trade Insults In Debate Full of Crosstalk.”)

Or take the New York Times‘ front page analysis (9/30/20):

The first presidential debate between President Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. unraveled into an ugly melee Tuesday, as Mr. Trump hectored and interrupted Mr. Biden nearly every time he spoke and the former vice president denounced the president as a “clown” and told him to “shut up.”

In a chaotic, 90-minute back-and-forth, the two major party nominees expressed a level of acrid contempt for each other unheard-of in modern American politics.

“Trump, Biden, Hurl Insults That Obscure Substance in Testy First Debate,” announced the Dallas Morning News (9/30/20). “Donald Trump and Joe Biden spent the night throwing haymakers at each other during the most caustic, and at times, disgraceful debate in modern history,” the article began. “Did it change any minds? That’s hard to say with all the noise. Trump said that Biden wasn’t a smart person, while Biden called the president a liar. It went that way most of the night.”

Moderator (if we can call him that) Chris Wallace of Fox News surprised everyone by including unannounced questions about climate change after activist demands (e.g., FAIR.org, 9/22/20)—the first time the topic has been broached in the last three presidential election cycles. But overall, when he was able to get a word in edgewise, Wallace largely stuck to the familiar debate script (FAIR.org, 8/2/19, 2/29/20), framing many questions in such a way as to reinforce right-wing assumptions.

For instance, on the question of protests over systemic racism and police violence, Wallace demanded of Biden: “Have you ever called the Democratic Mayor of Portland or the Democratic Governor of Oregon and said, “Hey, you got to stop this, bring in the National Guard, do whatever it takes, but you’d stop the days and months of violence in Portland.”

On the economy, Wallace managed to frame a question with about as rosy an image of the economy possible given the current circumstances: “The economy is, I think it’s fair to say, recovering faster than expected from the shutdown. The unemployment rate fell to 8.4% last month. The Federal Reserve says the hit to growth, which is going to be there, is not going to be nearly as big as they had expected. President Trump, you say we are in a V-shaped recovery. Vice President Biden, you say it’s more of a K-shape. What difference does that mean to the American people in terms of the economy?”

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Economic experts nearly unanimously say a V-shaped recovery—a sharp rise back from a steep decline—is impossible (Newsweek, 9/30/20), and the country is in fact experiencing a K-shaped one in which only the wealthy recover (Salon, 9/9/20); by framing it as a matter of opinion, then, Wallace handed Trump a gift that he scarcely deserved.

Before the debate, Wallace claimed his goal was to be “invisible”—a misguided goal if there ever was one, when confronting a candidate like Trump who offers far more lies than facts. Afterwards, he told a Times reporter (9/30/20): “I guess I didn’t realize — and there was no way you could, hindsight being 20/20 — that this was going to be the president’s strategy, not just for the beginning of the debate but the entire debate.”

It’s true, it’s easy to criticize after the fact—and it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for anyone tasked with corralling Trump, particularly with few real tools to do so—but Trump’s strategy was not, in fact, impossible to predict. As reality show producer Mark Cronin wrote in Columbia Journalism Review the day before the debate (9/28/20), “the past four years have been a constant reinforcement of the idea that no matter what outrageous thing he says about or directly to someone, Trump will pay a small price compared with those he has disparaged.” (Note the passive construction whereby no blame is directly laid; but of course, journalists who fail to speak truth to power have failed us miserably these last four years.)

Cronin correctly predicted that Trump would use tried-and-true reality show conflict techniques in the debate—from “deny everything, admit nothing, and make counteraccusations” to “extreme personal attacks,” and culminating with “breaking all the agreed-upon debate rules.”

To Cronin, “the televised debates are reality television, whether we want to admit it or not. And to pretend otherwise is to allow Trump to carry the day virtually unopposed.” The only solution he offered was to encourage Biden to challenge Trump right back, making personal attacks that get under his skin and make him look bad. Which, coming from a reality TV producer, is probably to be expected.

Many pundits have suggested that the Commission on Presidential Debates allow moderators to cut the candidates’ microphones, and the CPD has already announced they’ll be making changes to the format to address the situation (CBS, 10/1/20). But mic-cutting is no solution given a media obsessed with the appearance of even-handedness. By two different counts, Trump was responsible for more than three-quarters of the interruptions (Washington Post, 9/30/20; Slate, 9/30/20). A committed corporate journalist would cringe at the idea of cutting off one candidate three times as much as the other, no matter the facts of the case, but cutting them off equally would clearly be absurd.

The problem is not one that can be solved by new rules, because debates—from high school debate club to presidential debates—are predicated on certain assumptions: that each person has a right to be heard, that competing positions are put forth, that claims must be supported by logic and facts, and that debaters are not entitled to their own facts. When one candidate refuses to acknowledge or play by these rules, no amount of tweaking by the CPD will change the outcome.

And when you have a candidate—who also happens to be the sitting president—who will not respect the rules of debate, who deliberately casts doubt on the legitimacy of the election, and who issues directives to white supremacist groups from a national stage, the only reasonable thing for journalists to do is to not just call for an end to the debates, but to call for an end to the Trump presidency.

As media critic Eric Boehlert has pointed out repeatedly (e.g., Press Run, 5/15/20), editorial boards across the country—including USA Today and the Philadelphia Inquirer—eagerly called for Bill Clinton’s resignation in the late ’90s over his extramarital affair. Today, as Trump openly threatens our very democracy, where is the equivalent outrage?

The Washington Post took a strong stand…for letting the moderator cut off the microphones (9/30/20). To the New York Times editorial board (10/1/20), we simply must plod along, and we certainly mustn’t cancel the debates: Biden—and Americans—should “show up” for all of the remaining debates, the paper says, because “Donald Trump is their president. They need to face him, and the reckoning that he has brought on the Republic.” One might ask what the Times imagines we’ve been doing all this time if not “facing” the president and what’s he brought on the republic—or if they imagine telling us to sit down and watch the nightmare unfold as our democratic duty represents the exhaustion of their own.

Julie Hollar

Julie Hollar

Julie Hollar is the managing editor of FAIR's magazine, Extra!. Her work received an award from Project Censored in 2005, and she has been interviewed by such media outlets as the L.A. Times, Agence France-Presse and the San Francisco Chronicle. A graduate of Rice University, she has written for the Texas Observer and coordinated communications and activism at the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas. Hollar also co-directed the 2006 documentary Boy I Am and was previously active in the Paper Tiger Television collective.

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