The Twitter debate

This week, the Democratic primary got nasty. On Monday, the day after Bernie Sanders praised a literacy program in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Michael Bloomberg’s campaign tweeted out fake quotes “satirizing” Sanders’s flattery of dictators. (“Vladimir Putin is willing to poison anyone who disagrees with him, but have you seen how that guy looks without a shirt!! Mmm delish! #BernieOnDespots.”) Twitter, which recently suspended 70 pro-Bloomberg accounts for coordinated spam-posting, did not deem the Sanders “quotes” to have broken its rules; the Bloomberg campaign later deleted them. Yesterday, Tim O’Brien, the former top editor of Bloomberg Opinion who now works for the campaign, hit Sanders again during an interview on CNN: “Bernie has loopy stuff in his background, saying women get cancer from having too many orgasms or toddlers should run around naked and touch each other’s genitals to insulate themselves from porn.” In an interview with CBS, Diana Taylor, Bloomberg’s partner, told critics of Bloomberg’s past use of nondisclosure agreements to “get over it.” And the Daily Beast reported that a Sanders staffer used a private Twitter account to attack Sanders’s rivals and others, including journalists, with personal insults. (The staffer was fired.) Online, the Beast’s story took some harsh flak. Its author, Scott Bixby, was inundated with abusive messages.

The bad blood was still coursing last night, as seven candidates debated in Charleston, South Carolina, ahead of the state’s primary on Saturday. They attacked each other and, at times, they attacked the moderators from CBS News. Joe Biden—who, as the Times put it, was less “somnolent” than in debates past—showed flashes of anger with rivals who talked during his time and with moderators who cut him short; when one of them, Gayle King, called him a “gentleman,” Biden shot back, “Gentlemen don’t get very well treated up here.” He didn’t look like he was joking. Afterward, Sanders even rebuked the studio audience, which was noticeably rowdier than usual, and which booed when Sanders asked Bloomberg about his billionaire fans. “To get a ticket to the debate, you had to be fairly wealthy,” he said. “Most working people that I know don’t spend $1,700 to get a ticket to a debate.” (Sanders seemingly got this figure from a report by WCSC-TV, a local CBS affiliate, though some tickets, it seems, were handed out for free. Other aspects of the allocation process remain unclear.) However they got in, the audience members’ vocal interjections contributed to a broader air of farce. The candidates and moderators routinely talked over each other; at times, the debate sounded like when you have multiple tabs open on your computer and they’re all making noise at once. (Anyone who’s visited CNN.com will know what I mean.) At one point, Biden started to make a point, but was cut off by music leading into an ad break, like at the Oscars. Toward the end of the night, King had to interject to allow another ad break after her co-moderator, Norah O’Donnell, began, prematurely, to wrap things up.

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O’Donnell could have been forgiven for expediting the end; the debate was exhausting to watch, let alone moderate. As it unfolded—and in subsequent commentary—many viewers, including other journalists, panned the moderators for losing control of proceedings. The Washington Post, CNN, Politico, The Hill, and Vox all ranked the moderators among their debate “losers.” (Vox asked: “Did you ever have a substitute teacher who was so mild-mannered, and commanded so little natural respect and authority, that you and the rest of your middle school class quickly realized you could just outshout him until he agreed to just crawl behind his desk and read a book while you did whatever you wanted for 45 minutes?”) CNN’s Brian Stelter tweeted that “This is the first CBS debate of the season… and it shows”; Elizabeth Bruenig, an opinion writer at the New York Times, argued that weak moderation rewards “total psychopaths,” and “puts women candidates at a disadvantage because they’re less likely to just wantonly scream over people who are already talking.” Putting the melee to one side, some observers said the questions the moderators posed felt divorced from the immediate concerns facing the country right now. We waited 82 minutes for a question on the coronavirus, and there were no questions at all on Trump’s rampant politicization of the justice system, or on climate change. When Tom Steyer tried to raise the latter topic, during a discussion about China, he was cut off, because CBS had to ask Sanders whether he plans to give authoritarians “a free pass.” #BernieOnDespots.

CBS wasn’t the only debate host last night—the Congressional Black Caucus Institute partnered on it, as did Twitter. As CNN’s Oliver Darcy noted, Twitter’s involvement was “fitting” given that this debate, more than any other this cycle, mirrored “the disorderly dialogue” we often see on the platform. It’s ironic, then, that two of the more thoughtful questions of the night—on housing and education for minimum-wage workers, and on the humanitarian crisis in Idlib, Syria—came from Twitter users.

Though maybe it’s not ironic. Twitter is a cesspool, but it isn’t just a cesspool: at its best, it raises marginalized perspectives, facilitates overlapping focus on different issues, and allows everyday people to engage with the powerful. This is what elections should be about. There’s enough urgent mess in the world to keep candidates—and the journalists whose job it is to corral them—busy. Putting that in focus requires us to look past interpersonal nastiness, especially on debate nights, when the world is watching. We keep missing that opportunity.

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Below, more on 2020:

  • The State of play: Ahead of the South Carolina primary on Saturday, the opinion page of The State, a newspaper in the state capital, Columbia, endorsed Buttigieg. In other endorsement news, Jim Clyburn—the House Majority Whip who is a power player in South Carolina Democratic politics—is expected to endorse Biden today. Further afield, the Boston Globe’s editorial board endorsed Elizabeth Warren ahead of the Massachusetts primary on Super Tuesday, less than a week away. That was a turnaround for the paper; in 2018, its editorial board urged Warren not to run.
  • The cable news primary: Aides for every major candidate left in the race told the Daily Beast’s Sam Stein and Maxwell Tani that “they’ve been stunned by the degree to which the conversation taking place on cable and national news has impacted the trajectory of the race”; such narratives, Stein and Tani write, are “the main thing that is moving the electorate… and there’s not really a close second.” On Twitter, Peter Hamby, of Snapchat and Vanity Fair, disputed that conclusion: he argues that advertising and nontraditional media platforms have also played a crucial role.
  • Rejecting reality: Over the weekend, Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor at the Post, published a piece arguing that “Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both reject the reality of climate change.” The article so infuriated Emily Atkin, of the climate newsletter HEATED, that she wrote a line-by-line response to it. “You seem to fear Sanders more than you fear the actual climate crisis, or the oil industry executives who lied about it for their own financial gain for so long,” she writes, addressing Hiatt. “This is a far more dangerous rejection of reality.”
  • Garch money: In recent days, Bloomberg’s campaign has pushed back on critics who have described Bloomberg as “an oligarch”—so VICE’s Clio Chang asked Matt Simonton, an expert in ancient Greek oligarchies at Arizona State University, whether the label is fair. Simonton told Chang that it “absolutely” is. “With Bloomberg, it’s not just that he uses his immense wealth to get into the political process and buy limitless airtime,” he said. “What really makes him oligarchic is that he seems to have a vision of politics in which rich people deserve more political power.”


Other notable stories:

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