The first debate between US President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is played on a TV in West Hollywood, California, on September 29, 2020. Photo: Mario Tama / Getty, AFP

The countdown has started for one of the most theatrical presidential contests of recent times in the United States. While the entire world is fixated on a thus far incurable pestilence that has claimed more than a million lives, even the pandemic cannot divert global attention from the showdown between two heavyweights vying for the most powerful office in the world.

The race features a recalcitrant former business tycoon turned politician considered by 27% of American adults as the biggest threat to world peace, intermittently described as “racist” and “misogynist,” up against his 77-year-old rival from the Democratic Party, endorsed by his former boss, ex-president Barack Obama, as a leader who has “the character and the experience” to guide the United through one of its “darkest times” thanks to running “the most progressive platform of any major-party nominee in history.”

One side of the face-off, Donald Trump, 74, has explicitly proclaimed he is not ready for a power transfer if he is defeated, which is relatable against the backdrop of his meteoric, unexpected rise to the mainstream of American politics four years ago, bearing the hallmarks of a one-off miracle that might never happen to him again if he is unseated in November. He knows well that losing the November 3 election will most probably precipitate the end of his political career, sending him into long-term oblivion.

The other side, Joe Biden, appears to be rather unflustered, considering the relatively wide margin by which he is outflanking Trump in the polls, and the botched performance of his opponent in responding to the Covid-19 crisis, which is now haunting the United States as a nightmare with a whopping death toll.

Besides its effects on the Trump administration’s credibility, the pandemic is costing Trump Organization properties US$1 million in lost revenues every day, and Brian Klaas of The Washington Post has called it Trump’s Chernobyl debacle.

Stakes are high in this electrifying bout. Accusations are already floating around about Russia, China and Iran scrambling to influence the outcome of the elections by manipulating US public opinion. Global media are awash with coverage of the two candidates’ campaigns, many nations are anxiously watching the electoral tug-of-war, as the future of their relations with the United States may be drastically redefined depending on who is declared the winner.

Now, as the presidential debates have been rolled out, the rivalry is flavored with more seriousness and exhilaration.

The first debate on September 29, hosted by Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, drew in more than 73 million viewers in the United States, and millions of people in other countries also huddled around their TV sets to see how one of the most controversial leaders of the world would fare against a sharp-tongued former vice-president, who was consummate and unambiguous in his criticism of the president he is boldly challenging.

It is true that President Trump’s performance was toxic, and by some accounts, unethical. His incessant interruptions of Biden’s statements were unsettling, and he was cautioned a number of times by the moderator, Chris Wallace, to respect the rules of the debate and allow his opponent to speak for the two uninterrupted minutes he was entitled to for responding to each question.

It is also true that Trump’s attempts to dodge questions, including his refusal to condemn white supremacists, were indefensible, and convinced only 28% of American viewers that he won the debate, against six in every 10 Americans who believed Biden was the winner.

But even in this very chaotic debate, where foreign policy was not touched upon and as a result the question of Iran was not brought up, there were messages for Iranian society to be inferred and imperative lessons to learn.

Thousands of Iranians had tuned in to online streaming services and Persian-language TV stations broadcasting the debate live last Tuesday.

However surreal it may sound, many are looking forward to a President Biden, not the leaders of their own country, to come to their aid by resuscitating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, lifting the grueling sanctions visiting upon them as a comeuppance for their government’s intransigence, and redeeming their country from this draining isolation.

Iran and the debate

For the US-hating propagandists of Iran’s state media, always geared up to fulminate against their favorite bogeyman and insinuate the threadbare dogma that the United States is falling apart, the Trump-Biden debate was a perfect opportunity to instill in the minds of their audience that yes, this is the United States, a divided and troubled country, whose presidential candidates insult each other openly.

The inculcation revolved around this theme that the United States is paralyzed by the pandemic, a leadership crisis, racism and social inequalities, and so don’t look at it as the utopian land of opportunities, but as a collapsing microcosm of global “imperialism” – its leaders are clashing in a televised debate, and its economy is on the cusp of breakdown.

All in all, it was a good distraction from Iran’s own social fissures, growing incrementally, and its economic woes, characterized by the free fall of the national currency, rial, to its lowest value in 40 years.

Although this sort of indoctrination has its own clients among the less educated, more hardline, retrograde segments of society, fewer Iranians, particularly the educated, young, middle-class citizens, are acquiescing to such flawed narratives.

Yet in the first US presidential debate of 2020, there are important lessons for Iran’s leadership, Iranian society and Iranian media that they might have lost sight of while concentrating on tracking words, gestures and body language for hints about the man who will be in the White House in 2021.

First, the debate was an unequivocal affirmation that when it comes to free speech, Americans really mean it when they say they enshrine this principle.

The highest political and military authority of the nation and commander-in-chief of the armed forces was bluntly grilled and interrogated by the moderator and his political opponent without qualms, and even at one point, Trump quipped that he was debating both Chris Wallace and Joe Biden.

This level of freedom to express critical and unconventional views about an incumbent leader’s track record and performance, although not exemplary, is certainly commendable, and should inspire people and leadership in countries such as Iran, where even a mild criticism of a mid-ranking official can cost a journalist his or her job or personal freedom.

It can be viewed as a blueprint based on which it is possible to reform the ruling practices and embrace genuine freedom of speech, not merely because it is a fancy idea and a prerequisite for integration into the global community, but because it is one of the main ingredients of a healthy and unified society.  

Also, the Trump-Biden debate had a message for Iranian journalists and TV personalities.

Even though investigative journalism in Iran is not thriving and TV anchors and correspondents, all in thrall to Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), which has had wholesale autonomy over public broadcasting for four decades, lag far behind their international counterparts because of lack of training, relevant education, knowledge, expertise and independence, they do manage to get interviews with high-ranking national and international authorities and public figures.

They also sometimes moderate debates. But it is not exaggeration to say 90% of what they produce is a disappointment.

Ethical, professional journalism, particularly the job of conducting interviews and hosting debates, means doing extensive research, being prepared for on-the-spot fact-checking, asking cogent questions and being able to dispose of one’s biases and beliefs and maintaining as much objectivity as possible.

Sitting before heads of state or government, or any other prominent public figure, asking a question and then giving them unrestricted airtime to say whatever they want and nodding in affirmation while they gloat about their achievements and deliberately pull the wool over the journalist’s and audiences’ eyes to conceal their failures, is not called journalism.

Chris Wallace, the moderator of the first debate, is a journalist with Fox News, typically a pro-Republican and staunchly pro-Trump station. Even so, Wallace’s professional affiliation and his personal views didn’t spill over into the debate, and he outspokenly asked Trump scathing questions and even instructed him that “the country would be better served if we allowed both people to speak with fewer interruptions.”

In the final analysis, the televised matchup evidenced that in the developed world, leaders are evaluated on the basis of their commitment to the prosperity of their nations and their prioritization of national interest, and this is something that must encourage critical thinking in the Iranian public and decision-makers on whether they are at the mercy of their ideologies or communal interests.

The exchange of questions and answers on such themes as climate change, racial inequality and economy, regardless of the substance of what was said, was an indication that in the 21st century, leaders of successful nations quarrel over serious issues impinging on the lives of their people, rather than tossing around abstract ideas and rehashing ideologies.

The September 29 debate had important messages for everyone who watched it, including Iranians. Let’s hope they identify those lessons and contemplate them.

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist based in Iran. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow.