The first Democratic debate: Too many candidates, too little time

There were plenty of issues with the first round of Democratic debates. NBC had live-streaming lag issues and a hot mic problem involving two of the debate moderators meant they could be heard talking after they left the stage, a gaffe that repeatedly interrupted Chuck Todd when he was trying to ask Elizabeth Warren a question about gun control. But the biggest problem by far was one that was abundantly obvious before the debates even happened: Too many candidates—ten of them, to be specific, so many that every shot of the stage by definition had to be a fish-eye lens shot—and not enough time. Sixty seconds to answer a question and 30 seconds for a follow-up was barely enough time to string together a few sentences and look sternly into the camera, let alone make a substantial statement.

The result was also fairly predictable: Lots of shouting and interrupting (mostly by New York mayor Bill de Blasio) and repeated pleas of “your time is up” from the moderators, as the candidates continued trying to belabor their favorite point. And the difficulty of keeping track of all the people running (a problem compounded by the fact that “super” credits identifying the candidates showed up late and in some cases were completely missing) was compounded by the fact that there were arguably too many moderators as well—three of them (Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie and Telemundo’s José Díaz-Balart) asked questions during the first half of the program, and then another two (Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow) performed the same function during the second half.

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At certain points, some of the moderators—particularly Diaz-Balart and Maddow—seemed to be trying almost as hard as the candidates to make an impression on the audience, prefacing their questions with expository statements about topics like gun control and immigrant rights. And almost every candidate resorted to the typical tricks to get around the questions they didn’t want to answer: Namely, answering a previous question asked of one of their opponents that fit more closely with their favorite platform planks. Another casualty of the time constraint? Any real ability for moderators to challenge the candidates’ responses. Tulsi Gabbard, for example, made comments about her experience in the military (she served in Iraq with the National Guard) that suggested she was anti-war, but several observers noted that she has also showed support for Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.

Each campaign spent the evening tweeting out what they thought were their candidates’ best jabs or bits of repartee, trying to maximize the PR benefit of being part of the event. And much of the post-debate commentary centered on who had “won” by raising their profile the most. Many, including the folks at Politico, felt the big winner was Julian Castro, who saw searches for his name spike by more than 2,400 percent while the debate was underway, according to Google Trends. But other factors were difficult to judge amid the noise of the debates themselves, and will probably only become clear over time. Did Beto speaking in Spanish show that he’s a man of the people, or was he just pandering? De Blasio mentioned his black son more than once—would that help build support in the black community, or would he be seen as trying to make his son a campaign prop?

Trump, meanwhile, rendered his verdict on the evening in a tweet that said simply: “Boring!” and later mocked NBC’s hot-mic incident by saying it was “worthy of a fake news organization, which they are.” For many, the entire exercise seemed futile as a way of actually determining what candidates stood for. Cramming so many candidates into such a short space of time left them either clamoring to get a word in so they could try to make an impression on voters by shouting bumper-sticker style slogans, or disappearing into the woodwork. It seemed more like a ratings grab by NBC than a worthwhile airing of issues related to the election (although it’s not the network’s fault there are so many Democratic candidates). And the best part is we get to do it all again in the second round of debates tonight.

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Here’s more on the debate and reaction to it: 

  • Scoring points: Natasha Korecki, a national correspondent for Politico who was part of a group chat while the debate was being broadcast, said that Castro was the clear winner because “he wrestled his way in, scored some major points and came across as credible.” Korecki said Booker “had a solid night [but] it didn’t quite feel like he did enough to make a significant mark,” and Warren had the strongest leadoff “but it felt like she faded as the night went on.”
  • Raise your hand: Aaron Blake of The Washington Post said that candidates “hate having to answer questions with yes-or-no answers, but sometimes moderators must make them” and that the debate moderators got some good mileage out of doing so. “They asked the 10 candidates onstage whether their health care plans would get rid of private insurance in favor of single-payer health care. Only Warren and de Blasio raised their hand. Then they all discussed the details. It worked — and it can continue to for the right kind of question.”
  • Is Chuck Todd running? Five Thirty Eight tracked who spoke the most words during the debate and found that Cory Booker said the most, with Beto O’Rourke coming in second and Elizabeth Warren third in total words spoken during the event. But the most alarming statistic was that moderator Chuck Todd—who was only on stage for half the show—spoke more than 7 of the candidates on stage and only a few words less than Warren.
  • After the spectacle: Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan warned before the debate that “weird, unscripted moments and hot takes will once again explode in all their viral splendor” after the event, but that while journalists and political insiders thrive on that kind of thing, they still need to consider “how well does this serve all the undecided voters out there: swing voters and fence-sitters, genuinely interested citizens and casual bystanders?”

 

Other notable stories:

  • Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg said at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Wednesday that the social network could have acted more quickly to flag a doctored video that made House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appear to be drunk, but he defended the company’s decision to leave the video up, even though other platforms like YouTube removed it. ”It got more distribution than our policy should have allowed,” Zuckerberg said.
  • New White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham yanked Arizona reporters’ access after critical coverage when she was the press secretary for the Republican majority in the Arizona House of Representatives, according to a report in The Washington Post. However, the Phoenix New Times said that “reporter ban notwithstanding, journalists and other public relations professionals described Grisham as good-natured and responsive.”
  • Reddit quarantined the “The_Donald” subreddit on Wednesday, citing threats made on the popular forum for Trump supporters against law enforcement officers, The Daily Beast reported. “Recent behaviors including threats against the police and public figures is content that is prohibited by our violence policy,” a Reddit spokesperson said in a statement. “As a result, we have actioned individual users and quarantined the subreddit.”
  • Donald Trump said in an interview with Maria Bartiromo on Fox News that the US should sue technology companies after complaining that they unfairly repress his message, and said the issue might require legislation. Trump said that Twitter was unfairly biased towards Democrats and said the company was limiting the number of followers he could get. ‘Twitter is just terrible, what they do. They don’t let you get the word out. I’ll tell you what, they should be sued because of what’s happening with the bias,” the president said.
  • Facebook is moving ahead with plans to create a dedicated news section that publishers could get paid for, according to a report from Business Insider. The social network has been meeting with publishers and hiring to support the section and still plans to roll it out later this year. According to a publisher source, Mark Zuckerberg believes a news tab could draw a whopping 15% of Facebook users. Facebook has made the section enticing, but will face skepticism from publishers that have been burned by the platform’s frequent strategy changes of the past.
  • Tammy Kim writes for CJR about Korea’s disinformation problem. “News, fake and real, travels with incomparable speed in South Korea, a country whose density, small size, and superlative internet connection provide the ideal conditions for an echo chamber,” she writes. Kim says the country’s seniors are “particularly susceptible to influence campaigns, owing to their isolation and preference for smartphone videos over hard-to-read print.”
  • James G. Robinson writes for CJR about a study that looked at whether the new tools of the digital age have influenced the way journalists see their audience. “Our evidence indicates that for the most part, they have not,” he writes. Robinson says he was struck by “how little seems to have changed since the print era. Although they seemed more open to audience knowledge, the ways in which these reporters thought about their audiences was remarkably similar to those reported in classic ethnographies of the 1970s.”
  • The Washington Post is launching a twice-a-week Spanish language podcast and the opinion section is beginning to publish pieces in Spanish. “We have long studied the idea of moving into Spanish language journalism. We first needed to zero in on the value The Washington Post could bring to that audience,” Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, the Post‘s managing editor, told CNN Business. “With podcasts, we think we have the opportunity to capture a space that isn’t as crowded as others with some really talented folks.”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.