Comment: If Tuesday’s debacle can’t be fixed, cancel debates

A repeat of the debate, with the moderator unable to maintain control, can’t be tolerated.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

Chris Wallace tried — and failed — to control Trump. Something needs to change.

Chris Wallace wanted to be “invisible” as the moderator of the first presidential debate. “If I’ve done my job right,” he said on his Fox News show Sunday, “at the end of the night, people will say, ‘That was a great debate, who was the moderator?’”

It’s an absurd understatement to say that things didn’t play out that way Tuesday night.

Wallace was far from invisible. Instead, he was ineffective. Profoundly so.

And although some media observers were quick to trash the veteran broadcaster, that may have been unfair. It’s hard to know what he — or anyone — could have done, given President Trump’s refusal to abide by the rules or observe even a modicum of decorum.

The 90-minute debate fell, almost immediately, into chaos and cross-talking, not because Wallace isn’t a capable broadcast interviewer but because Trump was out of control.

It’s hard to know what Wallace could have done once the trouble began, which hardly took a moment, to fix the unfolding disaster.

Wallace needed to do something far more powerful than politely urge the president to follow the rules and stop interrupting Joe Biden. “Please let him speak,” he said repeatedly, as if shouting directions to a gale-force hurricane. “I’m the moderator of this debate and I would like you to let me ask my question,” he tried at one point.

But to no avail.

Wallace needed, at the very least, a mute button. Maybe something stronger. A penalty box? A stun gun?

Failing some radical reform in the debate format, there’s no reason for the next two debates to take place as scheduled on Oct. 15 and 22.

The debate commission should seriously consider allowing the vice-presidential debate to take place next Wednesday and calling off the other two presidential debates.

The normally self-contained Dana Bash of CNN, said it out loud on national TV in the moments after the debate ended: “That was a s***show.”

And there really wasn’t any argument to make against her judgment.

The historian Kevin Kruse said it more politely, but much earlier, only minutes in: “This is the worst presidential debate I’ve ever seen.”

Even amid the yelling — at many moments, all three of these septuagenarians in suits were raising their voices at the same time — a few newsworthy moments managed to emerge.

Asked if he’d like to condemn white supremacist groups such as the Proud Boys, Trump seemed instead to issue a threatening directive: that the members should “stand back and stand by.” It sounded as if they should wait for further orders from their commander in chief.

Wallace deserves credit for adding an unanticipated question about climate change to the menu, thus making the connection between the wildfires raging in the West and the warming of the planet.

But even that devolved quickly into claims and counterclaims about the Green New Deal, which Biden, confusingly, seemed to both support and distance himself from. For his part, Trump managed to admit that there might be some human blame to be laid; though he mostly waxed poetic about his desire for pristine rivers. (Afterward, Ariel Hayes of the Sierra Club called him “the worst president ever for our clean air and water.”)

But these moments of substance — or at least newsworthiness — were few and far between.

The debate can only be called a failure.

The idea that two more like it are in the near future is simply unacceptable. The idea that either of the two coming moderators — Steve Scully of C-Span and Kristen Welker of NBC News — can hope to control things any better is a dubious one unless the format changes substantially.

Debate Commission: It’s up to you now. Fix these debates or cancel them.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

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