In Wednesday’s debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris, there was no shouting, and no one said “will you shut up, man.” But interruptions still ruled the night.
Despite appearing more “civil than last week’s much-criticized debate between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, the VP showdown was further proof that in an age when divisiveness rules, the only way to enforce the debate rules is by giving the moderator the power to cut the microphones of the candidates.
After Trump and Biden sparred, media critics, former debate moderators and experts suggested that giving the moderator the ability to silence the mics of candidates who speak longer their allotted time, or over their opponent, would stop the chaos.
“Journalists have been flummoxed by a candidate who doesn’t play by the agreed upon rules. (President Trump) agreed to those rules and then he just ignored them,” Janet Steele, professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University told USA TODAY last week. “I really feel that if the debate commission does not agree to the equivalent of the Zoom mute… this should be the one and only presidential debate because it’s not presidential at all, it’s just a brawl.”
Wednesday’s debate showed that it wasn’t just Trump who wasn’t willing to abide by the agreed upon rules. Moderator Susan Page, USA TODAY’s Washington bureau chief, tried to keep the candidates to their time limits, but they didn’t cooperate. Pence spoke over both Harris and Page repeatedly. Harris twice turned to Pence (through plexiglass shields) with ire and said, “I’m speaking,” trying to take back her time. (According to CBS, Pence interrupted Harris 10 times, twice as often as Harris spoke over him).
CNN clocked both candidates’ speaking times as nearly identical, but if they achieve equality by talking over each other, it’s still a problem. Fundamentally it’s not good TV. No matter which candidate you support, listening to a shouting match isn’t pleasant, informative or entertaining. It’s grating, and it distracts from the substance of the debate.
There’s plenty to distract from the issues in any debate. Wednesday’s spectacle included Harris’s meme-ready reaction shots, Pence’s unnerving stillness, COVID-19 precautions including plexiglass barriers and a fly landing on Pence’s head. We didn’t need the constant interruptions on top of everything else.
On live TV programs outside the realm of politics, producers have broad power to censor. At the Oscars, the orchestra plays off winners whose speeches run too long with music. Late-night TV shows can cut to a commercial if a guest becomes unruly. Profanity is routinely bleeped or silenced on live broadcasts of any kind.
Of course, a political debate is very different from an awards or talk show. The candidates agree on the ground rules in advance, and it’s extremely unlikely they would accept a moderator with a mute button. Pence and Harris tried to pivot from Page’s questions to their established talking points, as politicians are wont to do. Giving away any more ground on the debate stage seems unlikely.
But 90 minutes of crosstalk is difficult to watch for the viewers the campaigns so desperately want to win over. If the remaining scheduled presidential debates go on (not guaranteed after Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis), something has to be done to enforce the rules.
Otherwise, they’ll just be more brawls.