America’s presidential debate format is broken.
That’s the position advanced by Intelligence Squared U.S., which argues that the current debate format is little more than reality TV—a string of “gotcha” moments, canned soundbites, and personal attacks.
It advocates for the more substantive Oxford-style debate, a format that puts a premium on persuasion. In an Oxford-style debate, one side proposes and the other opposes a sharply framed motion through opening arguments, back-and-forth discussion, and closing statements. Audience members vote for their preferred position at the start of the debate, then again at the end to determine a winner.
In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, the nonpartisan nonprofit—which has hosted more than 160 live debates—called for a shift to an Oxford-style format for presidential candidates. The result? “We failed,” Intelligence Squared moderator John Donvan recalled this week.
Still, the proposal generated some social media buzz about the need for reform, he said, and the organization’s Change.org petition amassed more than 64,000 signatures.
On Tuesday, Donvan, who is also a correspondent for ABC News and PBS NewsHour, visited a weeklong Johns Hopkins University Intersession course called In Search of Intelligent Debate. The instructor is Donvan’s former Intelligence Squared colleague, Dana Wolfe, an Emmy Award-winning journalist who served as executive director of the debate series for more than a decade. Wolfe is a visiting scholar at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins.
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