The Media Today

The debates are broken. How do we fix them?

August 1, 2019

On Tuesday night, in the aftermath of night one of CNN’s first presidential debates of the 2020 cycle, the reviews were lukewarm, at best. Did it handle night two, last night, any better?

Some observers noticed some slight improvements (there was 100 percent less John Delaney). But many of night one’s problems persisted. There was still too much focus on electability. Questions about climate change were still too far down on the agenda. The moderators, as they had done the night before, tried to stoke conflict between the candidates, sometimes apropos of nothing. In particular, they seemed determined to contrive a confrontation (apropos of a lot, in fairness) between Joe Biden and Kamala Harris: first in the sportscast-style intro, then via the night’s first question, about health care. At least that provoked an extended—by CNN debate standards—policy discussion. As proceedings continued, the biggest problem with night one—the moderators jumping in to stanch substantive discussions just as they were getting interesting—recurred.

ICYMI: Journalists on the ‘aha’ moments that changed the way they work

Many viewers remained unimpressed. “These debates are a case study in why you don’t cede a critical aspect of the nomination process to people who just want to create drama,” Jamelle Bouie, of The New York Times, tweeted.

CNN has begged the question: how might we make the debates better? It’s not a new dilemma, but—with so much 2020 coverage stuck in the politics-as-entertainment mud—it’s taken on a fresh urgency. On Twitter, commentators batted around some suggestions. The debates should be hosted by C-SPAN or PBS or “someone dignified,” Bouie said; David Faris, a politics professor who writes for The Week, argued that the Democratic Party should appoint its own moderators and invite the networks to come watch on its own terms. In between the two debate nights, Margaret Sullivan, of The Washington Post, mulled some other ideas: Scrap opening statements to allow more time for discussion. Allow voters to pick the topics and write the questions. And make better use of technology. Hosting networks could put policy-oriented “comparison graphics” on screen, or allow for real-time audience feedback, Sullivan wrote. Oddly, “other than tech’s role in the overdone setting and intro video, it’s not much more of a factor than it was decades ago,” she noted. “There are some nods to questions from viewers or voters, but they amount to little more than pallid gestures before returning to the main event: the prizefight.”

There are low-tech ideas, too. After the debates on NBC in June, Bill Grueskin, a professor at Columbia Journalism School, wrote that future broadcasts should learn from the format of the famous Lincoln–Douglas debates before the Civil War. “Pair off those 20 Democratic candidates into 10 debates, limit each to 30 or 45 minutes and assign moderators a modest role in providing questions or topics,” Grueskin suggested. “Then, let those two candidates debate each other.” (The actual Lincoln–Douglas debates, of course, were much longer.) Hossein Derakhshan, a researcher at MIT Media Lab, ran about 100 years ahead of Grueskin: debates, he said, should be on radio, not TV. “The truth is that demagogs [sic] like Berlusconi, Trump, Erdogan, and Ahmadinejad would be nobodies without television,” because it’s an emotional medium, not a rational one, he wrote. Radio doesn’t totally solve that problem, “but at least it allows a length and depth to serious debates which television can never reach.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

It’s important to note that the debate format, in and of itself, is not the only flaw: the way we talk about debates—both before and afterward—needs to change, too. Much analysis is relentlessly horseracey. We talk in terms of winners and losers—a binary (not to mention subjective) distinction that crushes nuance just as much as moderators’ quickfire questions. (On Tuesday, several pundits had Delaney as one of their “winners” even though the most memorable moment of the night was Elizabeth Warren slapping him down. Last night, CNN’s Chris Cillizza awarded Tulsi Gabbard the same distinction; given that the moderators failedagain—to press her on her past meeting with Bashar al-Assad, maybe she actually did win.) And fringe candidates who make any impression at all are crowned as breakout stars, often without receiving the scrutiny that such a status should entail. Marianne Williamson, anyone?

Admittedly, improvement will be easier when the huge Democratic field starts to winnow. “You cannot put 10 people on the same stage and permit extended colloquy unless the debate is eight hours long,” Jeff Greenfield, a political analyst, tweeted in response to Sullivan’s article. “In fact,10 people in any format guarantees a failed debate.” The next round of debates, on ABC in September, should be less crowded: to qualify, candidates will need to meet much higher polling and donation thresholds.

Given how our last two primary seasons have shaken out, however, it’s clear that we need to make durable, long-term fixes to the debate model, no matter how many candidates take part. Ambitious ideas like Grueskin’s and Derakhshan’s should be part of that discussion. But it might be much simpler to effect meaningful change. “No one said that moderating these crowded debates is easy. But it shouldn’t be this hard, either,” Slate’s Justin Peters wrote last night. “Ask actual questions. Listen to their answers. Ask follow-up questions based on what the candidates said or didn’t say… Give the candidates room to debate.” It sounds simple, Peters says. “But we didn’t see much of any of this on either Tuesday or Wednesday nights.”

Below, more on debates:

  • “Fire Pantaleo”: The audience interrupted last night’s debate several times. Protesters chanted “Fire Pantaleo,” a reference to the police officer who recently learned that he will not face federal criminal charges for putting Eric Garner, a Black New Yorker, in a deadly chokehold in 2014. (New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was one of the candidates on stage last night; his handling of the episode has contributed to his poor approval rating in the city.) Later, other protesters chanted “3 million deportations” at Joe Biden, a reference to the Obama administration’s immigration record. NPR’s Jessica Taylor has more.
  • Communicating better: On Twitter, Rebecca Leber, an environment reporter at Mother Jones, wrote that candidates should learn to talk about climate change “in a personal, relatable way. The way they try to do with almost every other problem.” And Nikole Hannah-Jones, of The New York Times Magazine, criticized the press and most of the candidates on stage for neglecting to talk about the suppression of Black voters.
  • Media criticism: During his closing statement last night, Andrew Yang had some sharp words for the media. “You know what the talking heads couldn’t stop talking about after the last debate? It’s not the fact that I’m somehow number four on the stage in national polling. It was the fact that I wasn’t wearing a tie,” he said. Instead of talking about the issues, “we’re up here with makeup on our faces and our rehearsed attack lines, playing roles in this reality TV show.”
  • Extremely Online: Yang’s outsized support on the internet, which refers to itself as “the Yang Gang,” flooded Twitter with coordinated Yang-related hashtags during last night’s debate, NBC’s Ben Collins notes. “Andrew Yang, along with the hashtags #ReturnOfTheYang and #LetYangSpeak, [became] the No. 2 trend in the United States.”
  • Extremely Offline: Joe Biden fumbled his closing statement last night: instead of telling viewers to text “JOE” to 30330, he said “go to Joe30330.” At the time, no such website existed. The internet quicky changed that: a friend of Josh Fayer, a 21-year-old student at Syracuse University, bought the domain and redirected it to Fayer’s parody campaign website.

Other notable stories:

  • Poynter’s Tom Jones obtained a memo from inside the LA Times in which top editors warn staff that digital-subscriber growth is nowhere near on track: “The Times had hoped to double its digital subscriptions from just more than 150,000 to 300,000 this year—a number that would have to be doubled again, the memo said, to come close to covering editorial costs,” but has added just 13,000 signups so far in 2019. (The paper has been expanding under the ownership of Patrick Soon-Shiong.) Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton points out that the LA Times once had a higher print circulation than The Washington Post, but badly lags its national rivals in the digital stakes. “Getting digital subscriptions right isn’t just about getting people in the door—it’s about keeping them there,” he writes.
  • Last month, a judge ordered PG&E, a California power company, to respond line-by-line to a Wall Street Journal report alleging that it knowingly failed to upgrade power lines that risked sparking wildfires. Yesterday, PG&E responded that it “strongly disagrees” with the Journal’s article: per Bloomberg, the company “acknowledged that it had proposed replacing 60 towers on the line that runs through Butte County”—where the Camp Fire raged in November—but said the project “didn’t target the particular transmission tower where the power line failed and the fire started.” The judge also told PG&E to disclose recent political donations, responding to a story by ABC News.
  • The long-touted CBS–Viacom merger could finally be imminent. Sources tell NBC’s Claire Atkinson that Shari Redstone, who runs the controlling shareholder in both companies, does not plan to stop there. “A combined CBS and Viacom would still be small compared to media titans such as Disney and WarnerMedia,” Atkinson writes; in a bid for scale, the merged company could look to acquire Sony or Discovery. Atkinson’s colleague Dylan Byers hears that BuzzFeed and Vice could also be Redstone targets.
  • For CJR, Leigh Ann Carey looks at the pervasive biases in press coverage of LGBTQ politicians: “How LGBTQ candidates are perceived when they run for office is determined in large part by how the media treats their coming out stories, the historic nature of their candidacy, and their self-presentation. And the stories journalists report are shaped by ideas about sexual identity that are sometimes uninformed.”
  • In Mexico, El Monitor de Parral, a newspaper in the northern state of Chihuahua, halted its print run yesterday after unidentified assailants threw Molotov cocktails at its offices. Per the AP, the paper says it will no longer cover crime news or stories with a “political slant.” Also in Mexico, Rogelio Barragán, a reporter in the south of the country, was found dead. He’s the ninth journalist to have been killed in Mexico this year.
  • And for CJR, Matthew Kassel asked reporters including Jason Leopold, Vanessa Grigoriadis, Jim DeRogatis, Leon Neyfakh, and Vicky Ward to share their “aha” moments—sudden realizations that changed their approach to journalism. Leopold recalls that on a trip to Guantánamo, “I wore a T-shirt that music fans could react to, and it opened up the door to a conversation.”

ICYMI: Native Hawaiians on coverage of Mauna Kea resistance

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.