The Media Today

The third Democratic debate has more substance, less fodder for pundits

September 13, 2019

Even by the standards of such events, the reaction to the third Democratic presidential primary debate, on ABC and Univision last night, has been tired. There was nothing unusual in the clichéd post-game chyrons (“GLOVES COME OFF IN THIRD DEMOCRATIC DEBATE”) or the contradictory accounts of who won and lost. Major outlets seemed to be grasping for anything exciting. “Biden fails to step up or fall down,” Politico’s banner headline screamed this morning (is that news?). The debate “was the best of Biden, and the Biden of Biden,” The New York Times wrote, cryptically. We saw the Democratic candidates “clash over how far to push their ideas” (per the Times); “argue over core issues—and the direction of the party” (per The Washington Post); “spar over health care” (per The Wall Street Journal). In other words, we saw them do exactly what they did in the first and second rounds of debates.

Debate fatigue is real: much of what the candidates said on stage was predictable and repetitive. Journalists didn’t help by playing up expectations. Readers were told to look out for fireworks: between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders; between Joe Biden and everyone else. But we hardly saw that. The night’s most conflictual moment—in which Julián Castro made repeated, thinly veiled jabs at Biden’s age—was poorly reviewed by members of the press. “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” Castro asked him during an exchange on healthcare. (Later, Castro said he wasn’t insinuating senility, but his denial wasn’t convincing.) On ABC, after the main event, Rahm Emanuel, the former mayor of Chicago, called Castro mean. “The debates are set up to stoke conflict,” The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani tweeted, “but when a candidate actually bites many pundits lose it.”

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ABC repeated some of the mistakes of earlier debates: climate change was way down on the agenda again. Given that the debate was held in Houston, which was battered by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, it felt like a sorely missed opportunity. But the hosts also seemed to have heard the criticisms thrown at CNN, in July; this time, candidates were given more time to answer and rebut each other. There were some nice touches to the production, too, including a pop-up definition of “filibuster” to aid viewers at home. And the moderators—Jorge Ramos, Linsey Davis, George Stephanopoulos, and David Muir—mostly performed their roles judiciously. Ramos, in particular, won praise for his sharp interrogation of Biden’s immigration record and distinctive questions on Venezuela and veganism. The Nation’s John Nichols wrote afterward, “¡Viva Jorge Ramos!”

As a result, the debate was reasonably substantive. And that, it seems, is what media outlets are least equipped to react to. If it didn’t really move the horse race and it wasn’t conventionally “entertaining,” what’s a pundit to say? ABC, for all the credit it deserves, isn’t innocent here: the minute the debate ended, the network jumped into a breathless post-game that hyped the Castro-Biden moment: “It looks like they might not be shaking hands!”

Still, there were a lot of candidates to cover. Ideally, we’d have fewer on stage, to allow for more intimate, substantive exchanges. We might see what that looks like next month: as things stand, 11 candidates have qualified for the fourth debate; thus far, no single debate night has featured more than 10 candidates, so a 5-6 split looks likely. In that context, moderators should take the opportunity to focus more deeply on a few key subjects—most pressingly, the climate crisis. If the candidates are asked roughly the same questions every few weeks, it shouldn’t be surprising when they give the press the same old answers to chew on.

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Below, more on the third debate:

  • The good news: The New Yorker’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells argues that last night’s event shows the debates are working. “The Democratic candidates turned out to have some more interesting, and idiosyncratic, ideas than they’d aired,” he writes. “By around 9pm Central, you could look at the field and think that they were, as a group, somewhat enjoying themselves, for the first time in months.”
  • Beto on guns: One of the most significant moments of the debate was Beto O’Rourke’s answer on gun laws: “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” he said. Commentators credited O’Rourke with shifting the conversation on guns; Carlos Maza praised him for flipping the script on a “gotcha” question. While the debate was ongoing, Briscoe Cain, a state representative in Texas, tweeted, “My AR is ready for you” at O’Rourke, who later called the tweet a death threat, and said he would report it to the FBI.
  • “Life is weird”: Also during the debate, ABC aired an ad, cut by a convervative PAC, showing Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s face burning away to reveal skulls. “Republicans are running TV ads setting pictures of me on fire to convince people they aren’t racist,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “Life is weird!”
  • Avoiding the subject: As the Times points out, the debate featured no questions at all about women’s health or finance: “abortion and the gender pay gap never came up.” Irin Carmon, of New York magazine, tweeted, “I assume they haven’t asked about abortion because of an assumption that there aren’t contrasts there, but I assure you that’s wrong!”
  • Biden to nothing?: Ahead of the debate, Politico’s Ryan Lizza reported frustrations inside Biden’s camp that the press “just doesn’t get” his campaign. “For a team in command of the Democratic primary, at least for now, they’re awfully resentful of how their man is being covered,” Lizza wrote. “And yet supremely confident that they, not the woke press that pounces on Biden’s every seeming error and blight in his record, has a vastly superior understanding of the Democratic electorate.”

Other notable stories:

  • Time magazine is out with a special issue dedicated to climate change. The cover story, by Bill McKibben, is an imagined dispatch from 2050 on how the world avoided the worst effects of the climate crisis. “Human nature, like journalism, is deadline-­oriented,” Edward Felsenthal, Time’s editor in chief, writes. “Our intent with this issue—only the fifth time in our history that we have turned over every page of a regular issue, front to back, to a single topic—is to send a clear message: we need to act fast, and we can.”
  • Justin Fairfax, the lieutenant governor of Virginia, is suing CBS for defamation; the lawsuit relates to Gayle King’s interviews, earlier this year, with Meredith Watson and Vanessa Tyson, who respectively accused Fairfax of rape and sexual assault. The allegations surfaced in February after Ralph Northam, Virginia’s governor, was accused of wearing blackface; it looked like Fairfax might replace Northam as governor, but Northam held on. Fairfax claims CBS did not do due diligence around the interviews.
  • Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing talk-radio host, slimed Krystal Ball, a progressive host on The Hill’s digital TV channel, with a false claim that Ball posed nude as a teenager. On Twitter, Ball said she considered ignoring the attack, but that she “won’t stand by when slut-shaming is being used to undermine yet another woman.” Limbaugh conceded his claim “wasn’t quite true,” then referred to Ball as an “infobabe” formerly with “PMSNBC.”
  • CJR’s Zainab Sultan assesses coverage of the crisis in Newark, New Jersey, which has had dangerous levels of lead in its water. “Might there be an advantage to joining Newark’s water crisis to Flint’s in news reports?” Sultan asks. “Overlapping water crises could enable newsrooms to learn from each other, and provide more journalists with examples of what it looks like in practice to hold officials accountable.”
  • A report from Define American and Media Cloud found a recent uptick in dehumanizing language about immigrants in the Times, the Post, the LA Times, and USA Today, coinciding with Trump’s rise. The same outlets often cited the Center for Immigration Studies, which was founded by a white nationalist, without noting its “extremist nature” and ties to the Trump administration. The Intercept’s Maryam Saleh has more.
  • Lawmakers in California passed a bill that will turn contractors across the state’s economy into employees with better rights at work. Newspapers including the LA Times argued that their carriers should be exempt under the law, citing the burdensome costs of compliance; lawmakers eventually granted the newspaper industry an extra year to comply. (For CJR last year, I explored the precarity of some contract carriers’ work.)
  • And Twitter refused a judge’s request that it identify the users behind Devin Nunes’s Mom and Devin Nunes’s Cow, anonymous accounts that Nunes, a pro-Trump California Congressman, is suing for defamation. Kate Irby has more for The Sacramento Bee.

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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.