Are US Presidential Debates Worthless — or Less?

The U.S. news networks are building up the suspense for the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, but odds are it will be another hyped-up TV disgrace, say Bill Moyers and Michael Winship.

By Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

Let’s call the whole thing off. Not the election, although if we only had a magic reset button we could pretend this sorry spectacle never happened and start all over. No, we mean the presidential debates — which, if the present format and moderators remain as they are, threaten an effect on democracy more like Leopold and Loeb than Lincoln and Douglas.

We had a humiliating sneak preview Sept. 7, when NBC’s celebrity interviewer Matt Lauer hosted a one-hour “Commander-in-Chief Forum” in which Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump spoke with Lauer from the same stage but in separate interviews.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. (Photos by Gage Skidmore and derivative by Krassotkin, Wikipedia)

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. (Photos by Gage Skidmore and derivative by Krassotkin, Wikipedia)

The event was supposed to be about defense and veterans issues, yet to everyone’s bewilderment (except the Trump camp, which must have been cheering out of camera range that Lauer was playing their song), Lauer seemed to think Clinton’s emails were worthy of more questions than, say, nuclear war, global warming or the fate of Syrian refugees.

Of course, that wasn’t a debate per se but neither are the sideshows that we call the official debates, even though the rules put in place by the nonprofit Commission on Presidential Debates are meant to insure a certain amount of fairness and decorum — unlike the train wreck of “debates” during the primary season, which were run solely by the parties and media sponsors with no adult supervision.

But despite the efforts of the commission, the official presidential debates coming up also are dominated by the candidates and the media, and therein lurk both the problems and the reasons to scrap this fraudulent nonsense for something sane and serious.

A little history: From 1976, when President Gerald Ford faced off against Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, the three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate were administered by the League of Women Voters, which did an admirable job under trying circumstances.

But then, as historian Jill Lepore writes in an excellent New Yorker article on the history of presidential debates, the Reagan White House wanted to wrest control from the League and give it to the networks. According to Lepore:

“During Senate hearings, Dorothy Ridings, the president of the League of Women Voters, warned against that move: ‘Broadcasters are profit-making corporations operating in an extremely competitive setting, in which ratings assume utmost importance.’ They would make a travesty of the debates, she predicted, not least because they’d agree to whatever terms the campaigns demanded. Also: ‘We firmly believe that those who report the news should not make the news.’”

Collapse of the Old Debates

Ridings’s prescience proved correct and then some. In 1988, the League pulled out of the Bush-Dukakis debates, declaring in a press release, “It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”

Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn departing Washington after the Inauguration of Ronald Reagan on Jan. 20, 1981.

Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn departing Washington after the Inauguration of Ronald Reagan on Jan. 20, 1981.

Walter Cronkite agreed. That same year, he wrote, “The debates are part of the unconscionable fraud that our political campaigns have become. Here is a means to present to the American people a rational exposition of the major issues that face the nation, and the alternate approaches to their solution. Yet the candidates participate only with the guarantee of a format that defies meaningful discourse. They should be charged with sabotaging the electoral process.”

But as Ridings said, it’s not just the candidates involved in this criminal hijacking of discourse. The giant media conglomerates — NBCUniversal (Comcast), Disney, CBS Corp., 21st Century Fox, Time Warner — have turned the campaign and the upcoming debates into profit centers that reap a huge return from political trivia and titillation. A game show, if you will — a farcical theater of make-believe rigged by the two parties and the networks to maintain their cartel of money and power.

“Debating,” Jill Lepore writes, “like voting, is a way for people to disagree without hitting one another or going to war: it’s the key to every institution that makes civic life possible, from courts to legislatures. Without debate, there can be no self-government.”

But the media monoliths have taken the democratic purpose of a televised debate — to inform the public on the issues and the candidates’ positions on them — and reduced it to a mock duel between the journalists who serve as moderators – too often surrendering their allegedly inquiring minds – and candidates who know they can simply blow past the questions with lies that go unchallenged, evasions that fear no rebuke and demagoguery that fears no rebuttal.

Remember that it was CBS CEO Leslie Moonves who whooped about the cash to be made from the campaign, telling an investors conference in February, “The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us… Bring it on, Donald. Keep going. Donald’s place in this election is a good thing.”

Oh, yes, good for Moonves’ annual bonus, but good for democracy? Don’t make us laugh. Elaine Quijano of CBS News will be moderating the vice presidential candidates’ debate on Oct. 4, with Moonves looking over her shoulder.

Fellow Celebrities

Remember, too, that both Lauer and Trump are NBCUniversal celebrities who have earned millions from and for the networks. (Vanity Fair magazine even reported that NBCUniversal boss Steve Burke had spoken hypothetically with Trump about continuing The Apprentice from the White House.)

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton debating with President George H.W. Bush in 1992.

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton debating with President George H.W. Bush in 1992.

Moderating the first presidential debate on Sept. 26 is NBC anchorman Lester Holt, a nice and competent fellow, but facing the same pressure as his fellow teammate Matt Lauer to not offend their once-and-possibly-future NBC star Donald Trump.

And remember that Anderson Cooper of Time-Warner’s CNN, the all-Trump-all-the-time network, and Martha Raddatz of Disney’s ABC News will anchor the second presidential debate (to her credit, Raddatz did a good job during the 2012 vice presidential debate) — and that the final, crucial close encounter between Trump and Clinton will be moderated by Chris Wallace of Fox, the very “news organization” that joined with Donald Trump to gleefully spread the Big Lie of Birtherism that served Trump so well with free publicity (and Fox so well with ratings) and that Trump now conveniently and hypocritically repents.

We wait breathlessly to see if during that debate Wallace inquires of Trump: “Did you really believe that lying about Barack Obama’s birth was good for the country?” And: “What is your source for saying Hillary Clinton started the rumor that Obama was not born in America?” And: “How do we know you won’t change your mind again and raise further doubts about whether the president is an American?”

And — to pick up on a suggestion from The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, who has been reporting on Trump’s charitable giving — or lack thereof: “Mr. Trump, will you now follow through on your promise to donate $5 million to charity once you were given proof that President Obama was born in the United States? What charity do you have in mind? One of your own, perhaps?”

Wallace has already admitted he is in no position to hold Trump accountable for the lies he tells in the “debate” — that “it’s not my job” to fact check either Trump or Clinton during the course of their appearance with him. That should be pleasing to Roger Ailes, who was fired as head of the Fox News empire for scandalous sexist behavior but who is now giving Trump debate tips.

Wallace is on record saying how much he admired and loved Ailes, to whom he owes his stardom at Fox — “The best boss I’ve had in almost a half a century in journalism,” Wallace said.

Such conflicts of interest at the core of the debates reminds us of what Woody Allen said back in one of his earlier, funnier films — that the whole thing is a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham.

And why are we so complacent about the hijacking of our political process — that it has descended to this level where the two parties and the media giants pick as the only surrogates of the American people the minions of an oligarchic media riddled with cronyism and conflicts of interest?

Scrap the Debates

So yes, scrap the debates as they are and rebuild. Even with a few days left until the first one there’s time to call everyone together, announce that our democracy deserves better and change the rules.

Donald Trump at the 2016 Republican National Convention. (Photo credit: Grant Miller/RNC)

Donald Trump at the 2016 Republican National Convention. (Photo credit: Grant Miller/RNC)

John Donvan of ABC News, moderator of public broadcasting’s excellent Intelligence Squared US debates, has been making the media rounds urging that the debate format be changed to Oxford rules — to formally argue resolutions like “Resolved: The United States Should Withdraw from NATO,” in which the candidates would make brief opening and closing statements and in the time remaining question one another about the issue at hand, under strict time guidelines. At, 60,000 have signed a petition urging this be done.

You have to wonder what would happen if those 60,000 and more turned up outside the first debate at Hofstra University on Sept. 26, exercising their constitutional right of assembly and demanding, not just urging, this better way.

Or why not put the League of Women Voters back in charge, with just the two candidates and a ruthless timekeeper on the stage insisting that they keep to stringent time limits and behave like human beings? If they don’t, on their heads be it. The timekeeper could even pull the plug early if things got out of hand.

Which brings us to the # 1 Question: How can anyone keep Trump in bounds? He makes up the rules as he goes along. He is a pathological liar and overweening narcissist who, as Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo reminds us in a chilling take on the man, has more than once hinted at the murder of Hillary Clinton.

Says the astute Marshall: “The salient fact about Trump isn’t his cruelty or penchant for aggression and violence. It’s his inability to control urges and drives most people gain control over very early in life. There are plenty of sadists and sociopaths in the world. They’re not remarkable.

“The scariest have a high degree of impulse control (iciness) which allows them to inflict pain on others when no one is looking or when they will pay no price for doing so. What is true with Trump is what every critic has been saying for a year: the most obvious and contrived provocation can goad this thin-skinned charlatan into a wild outburst. He’s a 70-year-old man with children and grandchildren and he has no self-control.”

Does anyone really believe a candidate so unstable can or will engage in serious debate? And if our first line of defense against his volcanic lies — journalists supposedly committed to truth — crumbles, how will we ever clean up the contamination?

Something’s got to give. We can’t go on like this. We can no longer leave the electoral process to the two parties or the media conglomerates with whom they’re in cahoots. The stakes are too high.

Bill Moyers is the managing editor of Moyers & Company and Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelWinship. [This article originally appeared at]

21 comments for “Are US Presidential Debates Worthless — or Less?

  1. John
    September 26, 2016 at 13:49

    Moyers is smart enough to know that if the League of Women Voters were to be given control of the debates, there would be 4 candidates included, mot two as he suggests on this article.

    Is Moyers actively trying to help “perpetrate a fraud on the American voter” by ignoring this aspect of the suggestion that the League of Women Voters run the debates? (The quote is from the League in reference to why they dropped out of running the debates, BTW.)

  2. backwardsevolution
    September 21, 2016 at 16:48

    Money needs to be taken out of politics. All campaign contributions should be stopped. Candidates should lay out their positions on paper. They should spell out exactly what they stand for, why they think this way, support their positions with easily-understood facts, and should be held to account if they deviate.

    90% of media is owned by six wealthy corporations, and we’re going to rely on them to give us fair debates? I don’t think so. Nothing gets accomplished, and the voters are none the wiser because of them. The sooner the bought-and-paid-for media gets out of the way, the better.

    All positions should be posted on-line and posted in newspapers. This could be paid for by the citizens. Get the money out of politics. Allow people to go on-line and post their comments under each candidate’s position. If you read the content and then read the comments, you get a pretty good idea of what’s at stake. People would actually get educated.

  3. J'hon Doe II
    September 21, 2016 at 14:19

    How much of President Obama’s ‘prophetic’ speech at UN General Assembly will be debated? Much or very little?
    United Nations General Assembly 2016

    Obama, in Farewell to U.N., Paints Stark Choices for Unsettled World
    SEPT. 19, 2016

  4. Zachary Smith
    September 20, 2016 at 19:36

    We wait breathlessly to see if during that debate Wallace inquires of Trump: “Did you really believe that lying about Barack Obama’s birth was good for the country?” And: “What is your source for saying Hillary Clinton started the rumor that Obama was not born in America?” And: “How do we know you won’t change your mind again and raise further doubts about whether the president is an American?”

    The authors whine and moan about the email questions, but then propose some of their own which are vastly worse.

    I’d love to see a series of questions for Hillary about her track record of destroying small nations for Israel. And about the wisdom of provoking a couple of nuclear powers in areas very far from the US, but very close to them.

    Overall, this essay does a great job of comparing wonderful Hillary to horrible Trump. Just forget that Hillary broke a host of actual laws with her email shenanigans. And that better people than her are in prison for doing less than she did.

    • backwardsevolution
      September 21, 2016 at 16:55

      Zachary Smith – good comments. The elite’s money is behind Hillary, so no light is shone on her. A Yale-educated lawyer destroys her hard drive? What? The Clinton Foundation, Haiti, Honduras, Libya, Iraq, Ukraine, Syria, encroaching on Russia, the list goes on and on, or it could if anybody bothered to bring these things to the attention of the American voter. It is like being right in the middle of Orwell’s “1984”.

  5. J'hon Doe II
    September 20, 2016 at 18:12

    Next Monday’s debate will doubtless feature remarks on the latest “terror attack” in NYC. Those watching will be galvanized into new states of fear and hatred of “Islamic Terrorists” and “terror attacks.”

    Neither candidate will offer a whispering word about insipid FBI Sting Operations, I’ll betcha.

  6. dfnslblty
    September 20, 2016 at 17:21

    “…But as Ridings said, it’s not just the candidates involved in this criminal hijacking of discourse.”
    Ah, but it is the candidates!
    ¿Whom do you think buys air time? Wake up, please.
    The entire system is broken – 90day electioneering publicly funded on paper ballots during a national holiday is the antidote.
    Protest Loudly!

  7. Lemieux
    September 20, 2016 at 13:22

    Firstly… if they’re not on the stage together at the same time, then it’s not a debate.

    As for the article, I couldn’t read anymore past the authors’ line of: “Time-Warner’s CNN, the all-Trump-all-the-time network” comment.
    Has Moyers even watched CNN?

    The only thing “all-Trump” on CNN is the attacks directed towards him.

    CNN is a complete joke of a “News” organization, full of propaganda, and only parrot the “official” narrative on any given subject, regardless of evidence.

    Not too mention that Time-Warner also has donated up to $25 million to the Clinton Foundation, which goes a long way to understanding their bias in “reporting”.

    CNN would be proud of this piece of cap article to be sure.

    • backwardsevolution
      September 21, 2016 at 16:36

      Lemieux – agreed. I could barely read the article. CNN all in on Trump? What? If they mean “all in” as in spending 99% of their time trying to absolutely destroy Trump, I’d agree. They barely touch Hillary. All of their time is devoted to crushing Trump. Bill Clinton’s meeting with Loretta Lynch on the Arizona tarmac was hardly touched on. Yeah, an educated lawyer, a former President, whose wife is under investigation, just “coincidentally” happens to run into the Attorney-General of the United States in Arizona, and instead of promptly turning around and going the other way, thinks it’s okay to strike up a half-hour conversation with the Attorney-General? And it was all just coincidental? Hillary’s emails were barely touched on by CNN, just swept under the rug. Clinton Foundation? What’s that?

      Come on, Moyers, this is journalism? Get a grip. I won’t look at you the same way again.

    • Dunlin
      September 23, 2016 at 00:59

      “The only thing “all-Trump” on CNN is the attacks directed towards him.”

      Yes, that’s what Moyers meant. He didn’t say “Pro-Trump-All-of-the-Time”.

  8. Bill Bodden
    September 20, 2016 at 12:55

    The presidential debates will not be totally worthless. They will be like a car wreck from which people can learn how to make improvements. As far as being events that will help voters in making decisions they are next to pointless. There is very little coming out of the candidates’ mouths that is believable. We can, however, probably take it to the bank if Trump says one of his planks to make America great again is to re-institute torture – if we ever really stopped – and make it more barbaric.

    The debates will also give us a chance to evaluate the quality of the moderators and the media, not that that will make for any improvement. Sorry specimens from the past are still indulging their prejudices.

    My vote is already set. “None of the above” in the form of Jill Stein.

  9. Wobblie
    September 20, 2016 at 12:13

    they are instructive reminders of how low the “conversation” has gotten among the idiot class.

    They can also inadvertently reveal truthful information.

  10. Khalid Talaat
    September 20, 2016 at 10:11

    Eric… while you points about a “proper debate” are excellent and thoughtful, I wish to know. Why is it, as far as the Trump camp is concerned, that one must be for Hillary every time he criticize Trump. It is like if your not for Jesus you must be for the devil.
    I am not sure who will win the election but I know for sure, we the people will loose. Trump and Sheldon made their money in gambling with all its attached vises. Hillary is a criminal and the track record is wide and long.
    It is only fair, since Democrats thought they found a savior and a dissapointment in Ohbummer, that the Republicans should have their turn and see the Chump as a savior to only be dissapointed. Do you really still believe that their are two seperate parties? Hint: watch a litte WWF wrestling matches. Presedential politics is nothing more than a Hegelian dialect of sound bites.
    Now look at the backers of both candidates and what they say. This is who will be the winner.
    Please wake up, please.

    • Erik
      September 20, 2016 at 13:21

      I agree, Khalid, and would not suggest that criticism of Trump is necessarily pro-Hillary, only that they should both be shown to fail the debate process.

  11. Erik
    September 20, 2016 at 08:00

    This article fails to report fairly just as it accuses the debates of bias. It is an anti-Trump piece that nowhere considers any argument against Hillary. She is no more likely to debate fairly, and is likely much more a master of lies than Trump.

    The proper approach is to consider the failure of public debate in general as a tool of inquiry. Public debate creates unnatural situations in which the candidates are separated from their facts and sources and advisers, and have too little moderation and time for reflection. It can expose a very poor thinker, but debaters should be allowed point-for-point preparation and days for responses; all questions and answers should be moderated before being stated.

    Proper debate is textual. Every fact is plainly stated, every statement can be questioned. Emotions are less involved; deceits are exposed; premises must be examined; bad arguments and bad analogies are questioned and replaced; side issues are identified and agreed for further debate. Textual debate is the way to resolve the issues. Then allow the candidates a moderated form of public debate.

    • J'hon Doe II
      September 20, 2016 at 14:51

      I very much agree with you, Erik. That last paragraph is a grand slam. The below piece is from the latest Chronicle of Higher Education. Although written in another context,it pinpoints the failure of presidential debates to accurately articulate existing realities.

      The writer is a university professor addressing student weaknesses in understanding reason as relative to current human events. The statement speaks for itself as to explain how these debates are pretty much worthless non-commication of truth or facts. Her words speak to the paralyzing lack of Knowledge that binds Americans to meaningless trivia –including that spoken by presidential candidates and most other politicians, newscasters,etc,etc.


      “One of the things I find in the university classroom, and I talk about it in this piece, is the really puzzling coexistence of a deep hawkishness and a systemic ignorance. So, on the one hand, students will have very strong opinions about what the U.S. needs to do globally, but actually have very little knowledge about the histories of, say, Muslim-majority countries. And I take very seriously the fact that these things coexist. I think that the war against terrorism, the U.S. war on terror, would not have been possible without a deep, public anti-intellectualism. In other words, there’s kind of a systemic ignorance that the war on terror needs, it requires, in order to operate. Many of my students have been fed these binaries about the free world and the unfree world, you know, peace-loving people and terrorists, and have accepted these binaries wholesale. And the job for us as educators is to really—what I argue, is to insert critical thinking as a terrorism prevention tool, you know, a way of thinking past these simplistic binaries, and thinking geopolitically, historically and contextually, making connections between U.S. racism domestically and imperialism abroad.”

      • Erik
        September 21, 2016 at 08:22

        Yes, the development of critical thinking by citizens is essential to rational policymaking. The process of education toward good citizenship is defeated by the propagandist mass media, which should be regulated for balance as well as restricted to funding by limited and registered individual contributions. Such regulation is no more intrusive than regulating their buildings, cars, and tax withholdings. This should be an amendment to the Constitution, with a similar amendment for funding of election campaigns.

    • joseph gomez
      September 20, 2016 at 15:05

      did you not see the GOP debate , Trump did not make any comment with any facts , he talked about the size of someone hands . And when asked about the wall he said believe me but gave not answer on how it would be build

      • Erik
        September 21, 2016 at 08:13

        No doubt he is not acceptable in the job, and neither is Hillary.

      • backwardsevolution
        September 21, 2016 at 16:25

        Trump is not going to build a wall because there’s too much commerce back and forth along the border. Building a wall would only hurt businesses on both sides.

        But he does intend to stop “illegal” immigration, which, because of supply and demand, forces up house prices, rents. The American people end up paying for the educational and medical costs of these “illegals”. The “illegals” force down wages and compete for scarce jobs, which hurts lower-income Americans. This is common sense. He is not against legal immigration.

        Trump actually does have facts. He is against TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), which will see millions more jobs offshored. Hillary was a strong advocate for the TPP, that is up until Trump and Sanders said they would do away with it. All of a sudden she said she had her doubts about the trade treaty. Yeah, right!

        Trump wants to end wars. Hillary is a warmonger.

        The elite establishment does not like Trump. That is the best reason TO vote for Trump. Old George Bush Sr. said he’s even voting for Hillary. I’m sure he is; he doesn’t want to see the gravy train that the elite have had changed at all. None of the wealthy do. The elite have made a killing ever since Reagan came in; the rest of us have twisted in the wind. Hillary will ensure that the status quo continues.

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