Dem debate rules push candidates, and the media, away from what matters

Under Democratic National Committee rules, today is the deadline for 20 candidates to qualify for the first Democratic presidential debate. Two weeks from today, 10 candidates will line up against each other in Miami. The following night, 10 other candidates will take their turn.

To get there, candidates had to secure donations from 65,000 people, register 1 percent in three recognized polls, or both. Conveniently, exactly 20 candidates appear to have qualified so far, 14 of whom say they have passed both thresholds. I’d list them, but it’s quicker to name the candidates who look set to miss out: Wayne Messam, the mayor of Miramar, Florida; Seth Moulton, a Congressman from Massachusetts; Steve Bullock, the governor of Montana; and (if you’re counting him) Mike Gravel, the former Alaska senator. In theory, Bullock could still pass the polling threshold; if he does, the DNC will invoke tie-breaker rules to settle on the final line-up of 20, which will be announced later this week. The qualifying candidates will be divided across two nights of the debate based on a “random” allocation that will also ensure “an even mix of candidates” each night, NBC reports.

ICYMI: Meet your new public editors

Both nights will run for two hours in primetime on NBC News, MSNBC, and Telemundo. Yesterday, we learned a little more about the format. Lester Holt will appear during both hours on both nights. For the first hour of each debate, he’ll be joined by his NBC colleague Savannah Guthrie and José Diaz-Balart, an anchor on Telemundo. For the second hour, Chuck Todd, also of NBC, and Rachel Maddow, of MSNBC, will appear alongside Holt. Progressive groups applauded the diversity of that line-up, although, as Bakari Sellers, an analyst on CNN, pointed out, it does not feature a black woman. Maddow is the curveball—she’s an opinionator, not a news reporter, and she has already made some of her thoughts about the Democratic field known. Maddow did help host a Democratic primary debate in 2016, Michael M. Grynbaum reports for The New York Times; nonetheless, he writes, “opinion journalists are rarely chosen to interrogate candidates in the formal setting of a debate stage.”

In recent weeks, a mini news cycle has developed around the qualification rules, as candidates have had to clamor to stand out. Kirsten Gillibrand called the 65,000-donor threshold “random and inaccurate”; Bullock, a late entrant into the race, said that it had penalized him for prioritizing his work as governor. Last week, Tom Perez, chair of the DNC, rebuffed criticism: he told CNN that candidates for president have to be proficient grassroots fundraisers. As several outlets have reported, however, imposing such a requirement at this early stage of the race has radically changed how smaller campaigns have operated—instead of building infrastructure in states like Iowa, they’ve had to plow resources into Facebook ads to attract further donors. According to the Times, acquiring one $1 donor can cost a campaign $40 and up; according to Vice, candidates have collectively paid Facebook over $1 million a week. This picture is only likely to get worse for candidates: the DNC recently doubled the threshold to qualify for the third primary debate, which will occur in September, to 130,000 donors.

The debate subjects, meanwhile, have themselves been subject to debate. Jay Inslee, the Washington governor who has built his campaign around climate change, requested that a whole debate be dedicated to that topic; the DNC said no and warned Inslee he would be penalized if he participated in any external climate debate. Yesterday, Perez wrote on Medium that granting Inslee’s request would have been unfair. But at least 10 other candidates want a climate debate, too. And Perez’s premise that climate is an “issue” is misplaced. As Naomi Klein tweeted last week, “Climate is not an ‘issue’—it’s the backdrop for all other issues.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

These qualification and format questions are political, but they also matter for the media. Ahead of 2020, there’s been much discussion of the need to keep the focus on policy. That’s our job as journalists, but the DNC’s rules aren’t helping. The donor threshold has driven candidates to chase “viral moments” that boost their popularity online; the lack of a climate debate, and the logic behind the decision, cuts against the idea of useful, substantive discussion. And the debates themselves could easily descend into an unfocused, noisy mud fight. Lester, Savannah, José, Chuck, and Rachel: no pressure.

Below, more on the debates and the Democratic race:

  • A pessimistic prediction: The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman writes that the debates will be “awful.” With so many candidates on stage, each will have comparatively little time to speak. Those further down the polls, in particular, could resort to sensational, viral-ready behavior to get attention. “When the cameras are on you, you have to find a way to stand out,” Waldman writes. “And reasoned, careful argumentation is probably not going to be it.”
  • Fighting for airtime: Politico’s Michael Calderone reports that “no podcast is too small” as Democratic candidates jockey for attention in the fragmented field. “Podcasts, late-night programs and web shows are increasingly serving as off-ramps from the daily news churn, offering candidates opportunities for more freewheeling conversations and showing off their personalities or pop culture bonafides to a variety of audiences,” Calderone writes.
  • A local angle: For CJR, Susannah Jacob talked to journalists from Texas, where two local politicians—Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro—are running for president. “National reporters’ dizzying task grows with each new Democratic contender, and Texas reporters don’t envy them. ‘Being a part of local press removes us from that conversation, and I think that’s really good,’” The Texas Tribune’s Abby Livingston tells Jacob.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, CJR appointed four public editors who will, respectively, act as watchdogs for the Times, the Post, CNN, and MSNBC. On Twitter, Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, answered questions about the initiatives; we rounded up the answers here. In her first column, Emily Tamkin, our public editor for CNN, weighs in on Chris Cuomo’s recent interviews with Kimberly Guilfoyle, an adviser to the Trump campaign, and Christopher Ruddy, the Trump-pal CEO of Newsmax. “If the people being interviewed aren’t in the administration, can’t be held accountable to anyone, don’t have relevant expertise, and refuse to answer a host’s questions, what’s their value?” Tamkin asks.
  • Last week, Russian police detained and beat Ivan Golunov, an investigative journalist with Meduza, on charges of drug possession. Golunov says they were planted. His arrest sparked a vocal campaign of protest across Russia’s media. Yesterday, authorities released Golunov and dropped the charges against him. The climbdown, experts say, demonstrates the limits of state power in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, despite the country’s worsening press-freedom climate.
  • Yesterday, a House antitrust panel kicked off its investigation into possible anticompetitive conduct by big tech companies with a hearing focused on the effect Google and Facebook’s dominance of online advertising has had on the news industry. David Cicilline, a Democrat, and Doug Collins, a Republican, have co-authored legislation that would allow publishers to band together to demand better terms from the platforms. Media critics are divided on the merits of the bill. The Post’s Margaret Sullivan strongly supports it. Politico’s Jack Shafer strongly does not.
  • Last month, Facebook refused to take down a viral video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that had been doctored to make Pelosi sound drunk. Mark Zuckerberg reached out to Pelosi to discuss the episode, but, according to the Post, Pelosi has no interest in calling him back. Over the weekend, a fake video of Zuckerberg was posted on Instagram, which Facebook owns. Some observers wondered whether the company’s response might show a double standard. An Instagram spokesperson told CNN that it will treat the Zuckerberg video “the same way we treat all misinformation on Instagram.”
  • The Post and The Hollywood Reporter are both out with profiles of Gayle King, host of CBS This Morning, whose stock has risen following a series of well-received interviews and a reshuffle of on-air talent at CBS. Robin Givhan writes, for the Post, that King “is, perhaps, what the culture needs right now: a soothing voice of reason, an adult who isn’t drowning in cynicism, who is still capable of being let down by her fellow humans if only because she still has faith in them.” Marisa Guthrie’s Hollywood Reporter cover story will be out online today.
  • In Nicaragua, Miguel Mora and Lucía Pineda Ubau—journalists with 100% Noticias, a news station that was shut down last year—were released from prison as part of amnesty designed to ease tensions between the government of Daniel Ortega and the opposition. Two men convicted of killing a journalist were also freed—the journalist’s family believes the men are innocent and that police officers were behind the killing. In November, Charles Davis charted Nicaragua’s totalitarian press climate for CJR.
  • And David Bernhardt, the interior secretary, gave an accidental interview to The Colorado Independent. Bernhardt thought he was talking to his hometown Glenwood Springs Post-Independent; once he realized he had the wrong paper, Bernhardt agreed to an abbreviated conversation with The Colorado Independent. He told reporter Alex Burness that he doesn’t think climate change poses a threat to national parks.

ICYMI: NYT promotes questionable study on Google and the media

Update: This post has been updated to reflect that Lester Holt will appear during both hours of both nights of the first Democratic debate. A previous version said Holt would anchor both hours of both nights.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.