It’s debate time in the presidential election season. Beginning on September 26th, the two major party candidates will hold three debates, with the third being about one month later on October 19th.

There is good reason to be cynical about these debates. Presidential debates were once put on by the League of Women Voters, but it walked away in frustration during the campaign of 1988. The League could not stomach the ground rules demanded from both major party candidates that year. Its press release explaining its decision to quit did not mince words:

It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.

During the same time period, the esteemed news anchor Walter Cronkite wrote, “the debates are part of the unconscionable fraud that our political campaigns have become.”

Things may be even worse now. For starters, don’t hold your breath waiting for journalists to act as watchdogs. Chris Wallace, the Fox newsman who will moderate the third debate, has said flatly that fact-checking the candidates is not his job. It’s hard to imagine Lester Holt, the affable NBC anchor who will moderate the first debate, mounting many serious challenges either.

Anderson Cooper (CNN) and Martha Raddatz (ABC) may be more feisty in the second debate. However, Donald Trump is already complaining that Cooper will be unfair. Trump may really believe this, but it’s also possible that he’s playing a calculated game. In sports, this game is known as “working the refs.” It goes like this: a coach claims the referees are biased and will call a game unfairly to his team. Two things can then happen: (1) the referees feel the pressure, causing them to police the other team even closer to preserve the appearance of fairness; or (2) the refs don’t change their behavior, allowing the coach to say afterward that his concerns about bias were proven true. Either way, the coach wins.

If you feel it’s your civic duty to watch the debates despite this depressing backdrop, here are four parting suggestions from a cross-examiner:

  • Watch for a candidate changing the subject instead of actually answering the question, and think about why they might do that.
  • Not every question can be answered with a yes or no. But when a question is simple enough to be answered that way, and the candidate still won’t do it, consider that too.
  • Enjoy the zingers and one-liners, but remember that delivering one shouldn’t allow a candidate to shut down debate on an important question.
  • Ask yourself whether something a candidate says is consistent with what they’ve said in the past. Reasonable people can change their minds, of course, but they should not just flip-flop to pander to the audience they’re facing.

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