America’s Flawed Televised Primary Debates: Three Nonpartisan Explanations

CNBC was the object of heated criticism of the way in which their GOP primary debate was moderated. During and after the debate, moderators were ridiculed for asking ‘gotcha’ questions and not focusing on the issues. CNN presenters suggested that such criticism was unfair, since the CNN and Fox News orchestrated debates had asked similar questions. Indeed, all three media enterprises suffered from very similar problems in the way the debates were managed and moderated. [For instance, see my blog with Tracy Westen, grading of the first Fox News debate.]

US Televised Presidential Primary Debates 2015
US Televised Presidential Primary Debates 2015

The central problem was a focus on questions that might be okay in an interview for television, but not for a debate. Rather than asking questions that enabled the candidates to debate with one another over their policy positions, the questions sought to catch each respective candidate off-guard with a question that challenged them to explain a critical observation surfaced by the interviewer. Many were indeed gotcha questions, but these were the focus of all the debates. Many others were just silly, such as the very first question asked in the CNBC debate that pushed each candidate to identify their major weakness. That is of course a standard interview question for entry-level job candidates, which most job applicants are well coached to avoid, as each presidential candidate did. But even addressing such a silly question belittles the candidates.

This was particularly problematic in the CNBC debate for two reasons. First, the candidates and their handlers had been experiencing this treatment over the course of the previous debates, so they must have begun to realize how the manner of questioning was undermining their credibility and failing to focus on the issues. It is true that candidates themselves are often adverse to clearly taking positions on policy questions. It is one way to lose as well as gain support. But policy differences are what a debate should seek to uncover. Secondly, the candidates and audience was set up to expect this debate to focus on issues in finance and business. Finally, we were told, policy issues would be the center of attention. This was not the case.

Why did the moderators fail to address the issues?

The major reason given by most candidates focused on a partisan, liberal bias of the media, which led them to attack the Republican candidates. I believe this explanation misses the mark. Let me suggest several other more plausible arguments.

First, it is not clear that the moderators really understand how to ask debate questions. Even when challenged on the questions, most of the media commentators defended themselves, saying that they asked ‘tough questions’ of all candidates. They seemed focused on not asking a question that would be easy for a candidate to easily respond with a prepared response. But the serious complaints were not about moderators asking tough questions. The moderators did not even understand the criticism being levelled on them. They seldom defended the style of questions, which seemed oriented to one-on-one personal interviews. The debates became a set of serial personal interviews, occasionally asking more than one candidate to answer or respond. Instead, they should come up with tough questions that will generate a debate among the candidates, such as around the budget, civil rights, or foreign policy. These questions were few and far between. 

Secondly, and related to this propensity for one-on-one interview questions, was an apparently clear effort for interviewers to impress their peers. How did the interviewers look and sound during the debates, was probably more important than how the candidates differentiated themselves on the issues. Note how many reviews of the debates focused on this or that moderator, as opposed to the candidates. This was as much about how many minutes does each moderator garner, as about the time allotted to each candidate. 

Thirdly, and related to this, is the media ratings game. Inadvertently, as the moderators prepared for the debates with their colleagues, you can imagine them rejecting various policy-oriented questions as too complex, or not that interesting to their imagined audience. In contrast, a simple question like ‘What is your major weakness?’ is easily understood and suspenseful. So the questions that would be more likely to engage an audience accustomed to game shows and reality TV get prioritized and those that are too policy oriented get shelved. The outcome was not a debate, but an entertaining three-ring circus, and one that successfully gained a huge viewership, more than the world series games that CNBC imagined itself to be in competition for viewers. This was more about generating ratings, than ensuring that viewers gained an understanding of how candidates stood on the issues.  

 

I’m not sure this is a case of the voters getting the candidates they deserve, as much as the viewers getting the moderators they deserve. This is not so much the outcome of a imagined partisan bias of the media as it is about a lack of professionalism (not even understanding the aim of a ‘debate’ v an interview), appealing to peers, and scoring high in the media ratings.