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The Presidential Debates Should Model Themselves After 'PTI' — For Democracy

The perfect format is sitting right in front of us on ESPN.
Make it happen, America.
Make it happen, America.

In the last week, two incidents have revved up the conversation about how journalists should deal with candidates’ on-air lies.

On Sunday, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, who was recently chosen to moderate one of the upcoming presidential debates, said it was not his “job to be a truth squad” during the debate, causing an uproar among those who believed that is exactly his job. 

Then, on Wednesday, Matt Lauer let Trump go unquestioned after the GOP presidential nominee said on NBC that he had been against the Iraq War from the start, which is untrue.

Just how the media should handle candidates’ lies has become a significant political debate during the 2016 presidential election because of one issue in particular: the wide disparity in the use of them by the two major candidates. According to the Pulitzer-Prize-winning fact-checking site PolitiFact, more than half of Donald Trump’s dissected statements have fallen into the categories of “False” or all-out “Pants on Fire,” compared to just 13 percent of Hillary Clinton’s

Because of that gulf, the debate among journalists about how to handle the pair will only grow louder in the following weeks, as the country creeps closer and closer to the presidential debates, the first of which occurs on Monday, Sept. 26. The central question here is twofold: How do you moderate a live discussion between two people when one of them has proven to lie so much more than the other? And how do you keep the conversation flowing freely while simultaneously keeping the people who are doing the conversing honest?

CNN, for one, has made some inroads in dealing with Trump with its almost comically passive-aggressive use of chyrons, like this one.

But there are only so many chyrons that can be created for each debate, especially when Trump, in particular, is capable of hundreds of lies in a single night. Maybe you can catch a couple of them, but not all.

Which is why a throwaway joke on the most recent episode of “Keeping It 1600,” a political podcast hosted by former Obama advisers Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer, caught my attention this week. During the episode, Favreau and Pfeiffer were discussing Wallace’s aforementioned unwillingness to act as a “truth squad” when the following exchange occurred: 

Favreau: Well, it is hard to sit there as a moderator and ― you can’t spend the entire debate fact-checking every single thing that’s said by both candidates, because then you wouldn’t really have a debate.

Pfeiffer: Yeah, it’s not “PTI.” There’s no stat boy jumping in.

The hosts quickly moved on, but I couldn’t help but think they had stumbled upon a solution to the problem. For the non-sports fans out there, “PTI” is an acronym for “Pardon the Interruption,” an ESPN debate show hosted by Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon.

During the show, Kornheiser and Wilbon debate all things sports (and then some) for 30 minutes, mostly uninterrupted. But at the end of the show, Kornheiser and Wilbon are confronted with their errors and omissions during a quick segment. It’s a silly part of a fun show, but it’s enough to keep the pair honest. 

Why, exactly, would a similar segment during the presidential debates not make sense? You could have PolitiFact, a legitimate news organization with Pulitzer-level credibility, run the segment. Trump and Clinton would still be allowed to speak freely during the debates. The moderators would be able to focus on asking specific questions, rather than scanning their own brains for the truth. Then, at the end, viewers could be told what Clinton and Trump omitted, and where they were pants-on-fire wrong. This makes too much sense, America, and it looks like I’m not alone, either. Let’s make this happen.

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