The Media Today

CNN’s first debate gets stuck between ideas and entertainment

July 31, 2019

Yesterday, ahead of day one of round two of the Democratic debates, a pair of pieces caught my eye. In one, John F. Harris, the founding editor of Politico, took aim at the “prevailing Washington media and political class narrative” that only a cautious, moderate candidate has a prayer of beating Donald Trump; our current moment, Harris countered, “has left voters of all stripes clamoring for disruption,” and fresh ideas. In the other, Sarah Ellison, a media reporter at The Washington Post, looked inside CNN, which is hosting this week’s debates. In 2016, the network took a hammering for its entertainment-first, Trump-saturated political coverage. CNN President Jeff Zucker assured Ellison that things have changed—ahead of 2020, the network wants to focus on the issues, and ensure it’s not putting its finger on the scale for any candidate, he said.

Taken together, these articles offered a hope, however faint, that we might see something different from CNN and the 10 Democratic candidates on its debate stage in Detroit last night: namely, a substantive conversation about interesting ideas, freed from contrived personal mud fights and the dead weight of pseudo-scientific “electability” clichés. As Ellison noted in her piece, however, “the muscle memory of cable news as entertainment is hard to retrain.” Sadly, as the debate kicked into gear, that memory looked especially muscular. As many watchers noted on Twitter, the moderators—Jake Tapper, Dana Bash, and Don Lemon—seemed to frame their questions to gin up conflict between the candidates: leftists v. moderates, leftists v. leftists. Eugene Robinson, a columnist at the Post, said afterward that CNN’s “clear intent was to spark fights.” Slate’s Ashley Feinberg was blunter: “It was a gross display of cynical political theater that wasted everyone’s time.”

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The candidates mostly didn’t take the bait—with one notable exception. John Delaney, a former Maryland Congressman who has scarcely registered in the race so far, repeatedly attacked his rivals to the left, slamming their policy ideas as unrealistic. Delaney took his shot. But it felt, at times, like CNN had picked him out as its centrist weapon of choice. The first question of the night, directed at Bernie Sanders, was framed around Delaney’s criticisms of Medicare for All as a “bad policy” and “political suicide that will just get President Trump reelected”; for the question and much of the answer, Delaney lurked, grinning, across the split screen from Sanders. This was all very odd: Delaney wasn’t even the most recognizable centrist on the stage; in some polls, he literally does not register at all. Polls and public profile shouldn’t be our only guides, of course; nonetheless, Delaney’s outsized role in the first half of the debate appeared contrived.

Ironically, the debate’s most viral moment saw Delaney get KO’ed, by Elizabeth Warren: “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” she said. (You could almost hear the West Wing theme music swelling as she spoke.) And yet, by the end of the night, major outlets were ranking Delaney among their debate “winners.” As Politico concluded, Delaney “didn’t need to nudge his way into the second debate—conflict-starved moderators pretty much did it for him.”

In CNN’s defense, there were moments of substantive talk about real issues, too. Again, however, they were often framed in liberal v. moderate terms. That would have been forgivable, if candidates had been given the chance to unwind the complex nuances of their competing ideas. Too often, however, the moderators cut them off just as they were getting started, often with a binary, “yes/no” follow-up question. The sequence of questions deprioritized substance, too. Moderators had already stoked discussion about whether left-wing politicians are really electable by the time, halfway through the debate, Bash finally posed a climate-change question; it went to (you guessed it) Delaney, and was framed around his opposition to the “unrealistic” Green New Deal.

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A question on “race in America” came even later, despite the immediate context of Trump’s recent attacks on Democratic lawmakers of color. The question, asked by Lemon, sparked a discussion about slavery and reparations; every candidate on the stage was white. (The debate line-ups were drawn at random, but were weighted to ensure an even spread of frontrunners across two nights; why not control for other forms of representation, too?) And there were quibbles, again, with the framing. “With every other issue, candidates are asked for a plan to FIX it,” Jenée Desmond-Harris, of The New York Times, tweeted. “With racism aka ‘the racial divide’—a weird thing that just exists and is nobody’s fault I guess!— candidates are asked for a plan to ‘heal’ it. It’s interesting.”

Some segments, meanwhile, were just silly. Sanders and Pete Buttigieg were asked whether their respective ages would be an issue with voters. (Lemon laughed as he read the question out.) Sanders was asked how voters could be expected to tell the difference between him and Trump given that they both oppose foreign intervention. On its live blog, NBC News, which cohosted the first round of debates last month, threw shade at CNN: “Tapper points out that Trump and Bernie both say they’re against military intervention soooooo naturally given the nature of this debate, asks how voters can tell them apart because, ya know, no nuance.” Ouch.

The exchange between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden on race, from one of NBC’s earlier debates, loomed over last night. That moment was viral-worthy but it was also substantive: as I wrote afterward, it crystallized “issues of historical and ongoing racial injustice, the nature of power in America, and the generational and ideological divisions shaping this Democratic primary.” Moderators can’t script such moments, but they can sit back and let them unfold when they start to happen, rather than jumping in to contrive further conflict. Tonight, we’ll see Harris and Biden again. Hopefully, CNN will let the spirit of their exchange return, too. If it does, both ideas and entertainment will be served.

Below, more on CNN’s debates:

  • Lessons from history: Last night’s rapid-fire questions and answers left some observers pining for a debate format like the famous ones between Lincoln and Douglas: back then, one candidate got an hour for opening remarks, the other then got 90 minutes, then the first candidate got 30 minutes for a rebuttal. Bill Grueskin, a professor at Columbia Journalism School, argues that we need a similar format now.
  • Botch job?: At different points during last night’s debates, both Sanders and Warren hit CNN’s moderators for serving up “Republican talking points” in their questions; Sanders, who leveled the charge during a segment on Medicare, added, “by the way, the health-care industry will be advertising tonight on this program.” Rolling Stone’s Ryan Bort agrees that CNN “totally botched the health care discussion.”
  • Top-notch job?: Some candidates were kinder on CNN’s performance than others. Steve Bullock, the Montana governor who made his 2020 debate debut, told The Hollywood Reporter’s Jeremy Barr that the network “did well.” Marianne Williamson, an author and “spiritual guru,” made a critique, but was gentler than Sanders. “I look forward to having a little more time next time,” she said.
  • Speaking of Williamson: A diverse array of watchers—from the left-wing website Splinter to Donald Trump, Jr. (who insisted he wasn’t trolling)—declared Williamson the winner last night. Others stated that Williamson, whose performance in the first debates went snarky-viral on Twitter, should at least be taken seriously going forward. “Yes, she still warned of ‘dark psychic forces’ in politics,” the Times wrote. But “Williamson was no longer regulated to the comic relief of the evening.”
  • Meanwhile, on Fox News: Before the debate even started, commentators on Fox were mean about it: “This is like the Olympics for them, but the sport is Trump name-calling,” one contributor said. In its online debate live blog, Fox put the words “climate change” in quote marks. Afterward, on TV, Laura Ingraham hosted a panel discussion about the Democratic Party’s tilt to the left.
  • Moving forward: To qualify for the third round of debates, candidates will have to meet much higher polling and fundraising thresholds than in earlier rounds. “Instead of campaigning intensely in the early voting states… most Democrats running for president are much more focused on meeting the Democratic National Committee’s rules for making the cut,” The Boston Globe’s James Pindell writes.

Other notable stories:

  • Conventional wisdom holds that coverage of climate change is a ratings-killer, and thus bad for news outlets’ bottom lines. But is that really true? “A review of industry-wide data and accounts from numerous top-line publications suggest that audience interest in climate coverage is, in fact, on the rise, and that dedicating resources to the story might suit companies’ bottom lines,” CJR’s Andrew McCormick finds. According to an analysis of 1,300 websites commissioned by CJR, the time readers spent on climate stories in the first quarter of 2019 “had almost doubled from the time spent in previous years.”
  • Some old-Gawker news: Jim Spanfeller—who leads G/O Media, which used to be Gizmodo Media Group, whose assets used to belong to Gawker—sent a memo to staff slamming reporting practices at Deadspin; the site, which is part of G/O Media, is preparing to publish a story about Spanfeller’s hiring practices. Spanfeller will allow the story to run—as long as an “impartial outside editor” approves it—but said the questions Deadspin put to him “left me greatly concerned about the objectivity and core intentions of this piece.” Spanfeller—who was installed as CEO when a private-equity firm, Great Hill Partners, bought G/O Media earlier this year—has already raised eyebrows; he reportedly pushed editors to let advertisers shape coverage, among other concerns.
  • Some new-Gawker news: Bustle Digital Group’s planned relaunch of Gawker is off—at least for now. The operation has been plagued by problems from the start; yesterday, management laid off Gawker’s entire staff, including its editor in chief, Dan Peres, and Carson Griffith, its controversial editorial director. According to the New York Post’s Alexandra Steigrad, Bryan Goldberg, Bustle’s CEO, still plans to revive Gawker, but it’s not clear when. (ICYMI, Lyz Lenz profiled Goldberg the “digital slumlord” for CJR.)
  • Josh Hawley, the Republican senator for Missouri, is backing legislation that would curb the “addictive” nature of social media platforms. Per Makena Kelly, of The Verge, the bill would ban features, such as endless scroll and video autoplay, designed to indefinitely sustain users’ attention; ensure that consumers can give their informed consent to services; and mandate platforms to track the time users spend on them across devices.
  • And on Monday, authorities in Mauritania freed Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir, a blogger, after detaining him for five and a half years on blasphemy charges, Human Rights Watch reports. Mkhaitir has been transferred outside of Mauritania due to fears for his safety.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.