Trump-Biden debate was marred by interruptions. Should mics have been cut?

Rasha Ali

While Donald Trump and Joe Biden were vying for attention during Tuesday night's presidential debate, they were both ultimately overshadowed by one true star: interruptions.

During Tuesday's melee, the two men questioned one another's intelligence, Trump interrupted Biden; and Biden scoffed at the president's comments and called him a "clown." At one point, the Democratic candidate asked Trump, "Will you shut up, man?" The frequent interruptions forced moderator Chris Wallace to remind the room that the candidates agreed to the rules of the debate, which included not speaking over each other.

Seeing Wallace left alone with no raucous audience or fellow moderators to help him gain control of the two candidates, begged the question: Why not cut the microphones? 

Megyn Kelly — who served as a moderator for the Republican Party presidential debate on August 6, 2015 — offered advice for the next round debates: "Keep the moderator on cam & give him/her the ability to cut the mics. They will stop talking."

Janet Steele, professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, thinks it's a good option for the next debate.

"Journalists have been flummoxed by a candidate who doesn't play by the agreed upon rules. (President Trump) agreed to those rules and then he just ignored them," Steele told USA TODAY. "I really feel that if the debate commission does not agree to the equivalent of the Zoom mute... this should be the one and only presidential debate because it's not presidential at all, it's just a brawl."

The Commission on Presidential Debates issued a statement Wednesday saying it will considermaking changes to the debate's structure.

"Last night’s debate made clear that additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues," the statement read. "The Commission is grateful to Chris Wallace for the professionalism and skill he brought to last night’s debate and intends to ensure that additional tools to maintain order are in place for the remaining debates."

"These aren't really debates in a pure sense, they're largely a political spectacle," said Taylor Hahn, director of the communication program at Johns Hopkins University, adding that viewers are drawn to the "nastiness" of the debates.

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While muting or cutting debaters' mics seems like an appealing solution Hahn believes it's unlikely to happen.

"The fear of being seen as privileging one candidate over another makes it a huge liability for any moderator. The kind of annoying cross talk we got last night really runs the risk of making the candidate look bad and to a certain extent the moderator and the organizing body," Hahn argued.

He said if the moderator is given the ability to silence candidates' microphones it "increases the likelihood of the moderator or the organizer looking ... as though they're biased or privileging candidates which is a lot less appealing for those organizers."

It's not the first time this issue has come up. During the 1980 Republican primary debate, there was an attempt to cut Ronald Reagan off, which resulted in him saying: "I am paying for this microphone." And he was, since he funded the debate.

Most recently, Andrew Yang claimed his microphone was off during the Democratic debate in 2019. NBC News denied that the candidate's mic was turned off. 

If muting the microphones isn't an option, Steele does have one suggestion for moderators: stand up.

"Sometimes I thought that if Chris Wallace was standing up, it would've helped," Steele suggested. "His positioning was not good and he clearly had no authority to shut anybody up."

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Contributing: Associated Press