The debate is a universal forum of education, compromise, and reflection. Nowadays we see ‘debates’ every day in the media, as ways to help enlighten us on issues of importance and controversy – politics, religion, health care, abortion, sexual orientation, and so on.

Today’s Debates

There are problems with how the media conducts ‘debates’ that seem to be so ingrained they are often unrecognized or ignored by most viewers.

  1. Grossly insufficient time to actually have the debate. Most are under 10 minutes long. The vast majority of debates on CNN, MSNBC, FOX, and other news networks are barely enough to state one’s argument in brief and attack the other’s once or twice. This is a product of our ever-contracting attention spans and the media’s rational need to maintain engagement.
  2. Disagreement over facts. Debaters often ‘rest’ on disagreement over a quotation or a number that could be easily verified.
  3. A lack of discipline in chasing down the fundamental disagreement. Seemingly complex issues like health care, abortion, equal rights, religion, and so on are often reducible to a handful of differences that each debater may respectively perceive as axiomatic. It is only once we get to that point, having stripped away layers of superfluous sophistication, that we see the debate for what it really is.

A New Model

Debates properly run should seek to eliminate the above problems, recognizing that participants should not be ‘saved’ by time or moderator, and the debate should continue to run until someone loses or they reach the wall that is their own axioms. A fact should not be a point of contention. So, we have a new model with the following characteristics.

  • Real-time fact checking on claims brought by the debaters, done on-site with confirmation supplied to the debaters in full public view.
  • A sharp moderator with the speed and clarity to call debaters on cheap tricks, bluffs, and avoidance. The US needs the kind of moderation exhibited by Jeremy Paxman and Jonathan Dimbleby. If only Katie Couric had drilled Palin more on the issues during that infamous September 24th 2008 interview.
  • Extended time periods. Perhaps a focused hour to debate a single important issue while being called out on unhelpful tactics and inaccurate statements.

The British networks do a better job of conducting meaningful debates with examples like Question Time and Newsnight. It is time the American media starts to expose the mainstream to what, for controversial issues, may be their best chance of a more rigorous truth.