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Improving The Election Debate Format


This Wednesday, Democratic vice presidential nominee Senator Kamala Harris and the current vice president, Mike Pence, are still expected to face off in the only vice presidential debate before Election Day.

And this, of course, comes just days after what is widely considered a disastrous presidential debate. After a night of interruptions and personal attacks, mostly from President Trump, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that it is considering changes to add, quote-unquote, "additional structure" to these events. Popular suggestions have included switching off the microphone of the candidate who isn't speaking.

And that got us thinking about the usefulness of the debate's current format and what might improve it, so we've called on veteran television producer Tom Bettag. He had a long career in television news, including as executive producer for "Nightline With Ted Koppel." He's won dozens of Emmys, and he's a former colleague of mine as well.

Tom Bettag, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

TOM BETTAG: Thank you.

MARTIN: So before we jump in, I did want to just ask your reaction to the last debate. As we mentioned, it's received a lot of criticism for being undisciplined, difficult to watch. What did you think of it?

BETTAG: (Laughter) I thought it was a train wreck without a question. And I think a lot of people turned it off because they just couldn't stand it. But when it was all said and done, I think it will go down as a very important point in the history of this campaign. This morning, the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll shows that after the debate, Biden's lead went from eight points to 14 points.

Secondly, I think history will remember the moment when Trump was unwilling to answer the question, will you denounce white separatists? So it's not as if it was a completely wasted debate. It was just ugly.

MARTIN: Are there no technical fixes that you can think of that would, you know, help this?

BETTAG: I think the notion of being willing after a warning to cut off a mic is a little bit like the "Nightline" example. The moderator just didn't have to go to the person sitting in Los Angeles and essentially could cut off their mic so they'd have to comport themselves in some way like that.

MARTIN: I do want to ask about the possibility of remote debates - I mean, in part for reasons of sort of guest management, but also because of the health issue. I mean, as we know, like, President Trump recently tested positive for coronavirus. We don't know how widespread it is within the inner circle.

I didn't realize this until we researched this, but there was actually a history of remote debates in presidential campaigns and primaries. Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy held their third debate remote in 1960, and then John McCain and George W. Bush in the 2000 Republican primary. And McCain and Obama had an online youth debate in 2008. So is there a possibility that that would just be the next step here?

BETTAG: I think doing it remotely would be smart. And why in the world would we not do it remotely on Wednesday? What would we lose in doing that? And when you have a president whose health situation is not at all clear, to have the vice president, the next in line, flying and moving around, especially when we know that the vice president has been exposed to the coronavirus, is silly.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, I just want to ask about the whole concept of this project itself. These are primetime TV events, usually moderated by a television news anchor. On the one hand, it's - it is a public service. People are looking to these events to help them make their minds up, OK?

On the other hand, the media environment in this country has changed a lot in the last, you know, 15 years. The president has really come to rely on Twitter as his way of communicating with people. I just wondered, as a person who had a long career in legacy media, especially TV, do you think it might be time to rethink the whole project?

BETTAG: I think that there's still a value in this social media age when Trump can dominate with Twitter and go all that direction to do a full stop and put the two people together on an equal footing talking to each other. I think that it still has value, and so that the emphasis should be on how to do it right rather than to discard it.

MARTIN: Tom Bettag is a veteran television news producer, winner of multiple awards. He now teaches journalism at the University of Maryland.

Tom Bettag, thank you so much for talking to us.

BETTAG: Delighted. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.