Debate Reforms With Teeth

11/14/2011 02:54 pm ET | Updated Jan 14, 2012

While there continued to be much for comedians to ridicule in Saturday night's Republican debate on foreign policy, it must also be said that there were differences -- of a substantive and positive kind -- compared to previous GOP debates. Hosted by CBS and National Journal, and moderated by Scott Pelley and Major Garrett, the first thing noticed was that every question asked was deadly serious and deeply important. So hats off to the moderators. They did a first rate job.

An objective observer must also report that candidate answers were, relatively-speaking, more substantive than previous debates. Of course, every response was prefaced by variations on 'Obama sucks at everything and I will fix the mess he made.' And granted, most of what followed was still posturing, pandering, and talking point-making. But even those were in the ballpark of semi-serious opinion, as contrasted with the cartoonish views expressed by some over the last few months.

And there were also occasional responses that one would have to describe as actually thoughtful (or at least principled). Sadly, they came only from those polling in negligible numbers (Huntsman, Santorum, Paul).

Nevertheless, this debate -- the first one I've been able to watch in its entirely without my head exploding -- offered some glimmers in the darkness. Firstly, as suggested above, it was expertly run. Anyone wanting to upgrade the value of future debates should use Pelley and Garrett's performance as the benchmark.

Pelley was doubly impressive, continually enforcing the rules, like time limits on responses -- aggressively (yet respectfully) interrupting and shutting down non-cooperating bloviators when needed. He would also be more forceful and disciplined than most in repeating (and really trying) to get candidates to answer the question actually asked, after they initially dodged it and went off on some unrelated babble. This was incredibly refreshing, and frankly took some balls. Mainstream media integrity, too often written off for dead, still has some torchbearers.

The simple pleasure derived from quality questions and format enforcement allowed my mind to drift to other ideas I've long had to radically improve the usefulness of these 'debates' -- but which I'd written off due to the dumbed-down dynamics of this usually preening reality show competition.

But I think the window just opened a bit. So for all future debates, of both parties, consider just two ideas that would be simple and low cost -- but could be huge game changers. Imagine the effect on candidate comments and viewer responses if we had:

1) Real Time Fact Checking on TV -- a continual scroll on screen identifying the veracity of every assertion used to justify an answer -- provided by a panel of thoroughly vetted non-ideological issue experts typing reality-checks in real time. Whenever a premise or assertion is made that is patently false, or on the south side of truthiness, it would be flagged on screen within seconds of its utterance -- along with a tally of how many times that candidate transgressed during the debate.

2) Non-Sequitur Alert -- each time a candidate dodges a question, and goes off on a tangent, a Non-Sequitur graphic would appear on screen, along with a running tally.

I think I remember seeing something like real time fact checking in a couple debates in the past, but I wasn't comforted by the credibility of the fact checkers. And there are always people live blogging these things, and providing real time fact checking -- with more formal analyses done by major news organizations the day after. But that info is only seen by the political junkies. Flashing this info on screen, in real time, by an unimpeachable panel, would be a quantum leap forward, and could have a profound effect on both candidate and viewer.

And the simple one-word alerts about question-dodging would also convey a great deal about a candidate's character and forthrightness, values that voters rightfully hold dear.

There are many other ideas out there for reforming the debate format so it's more serious, more informative, more actually debate-y than simply a platform for talking points. I'm for anything that could accomplish that. But I can't think of anything as easy to do -- that the vast majority of viewers would value -- than the two simple, cheap, immediately implementable ideas above.

Doing so wouldn't even take Scott Pelley-size balls. Just a small increase in journalistic self-respect.