I must say I was very disappointed by the Congressional candidates "debate" hosted by the Fond du Lac Rotary Club on Monday. In a race where it appears only two such forums are going to be held, the format did nothing to actually advance the public's understanding of the positions held by the two candidates (listed in alphabetical order) State Senator Glenn Grothman and Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris.
Before I get into the debate itself, let me tell you about the controversy that preceded it. Our friend Emily Matesic of Action Two News arrived with her videographer to film the debate for use in a story later that day. She was told--in no uncertain terms--that no cameras were allowed in the room (except for some podcasting that a Fond du Lac radio station was doing) at the request of one of the candidates. (Given that there is one candidate in this race that is desperate for all of the media attention he can get to make up for lack of fundraising to buy advertising--I'll leave it up to you to determine which candidate may not have wanted the TV crews to show up). It was only after a couple of Milwaukee TV stations and Wisconsin Public Television showed up that the Rotary President aquiesced and allowed them to record the debate. Chalk up another win for the First Amendment!!
Now to the debate itself. It was my absolute least-favorite format: Three minute "opening statements", take turns answering questions with a two minute time limit, no rebuttal and then three minute closing statements. In that format all you end up with is "I'll say my main talking points--you say your main talking points and then we will move on to the next question". It's a style of "debate" that doesn't actually feature any "debating". You may as well have had two Rotary members themselves reading prepared statements from each of the candidates and it would have been just as enlightening.
I realize that the art of inter-personal communication is dying and someday such debates will be held via text messages on some smartphone and tablet app--but at least force the candidates to defend their positions and provide some insight into the thought process and rationale for holding those beliefs! I know the fear of forum hosts is that if you have a real "open debate" that it might allow one candidate to speak for three-minutes and 28-seconds more than the other and that will lead to the "less spoken" candidate's supporters to claim bias and favortism--but clear, concise arguments are usually more effective than hogging all of the mic time anyway.
But how can we expect to break out of the cycle of low-information voters if we refuse to give them more information with which to make their decision?