In the aftermath of the primaries and caucuses in Arizona, Utah, and Idaho, and the bombings in Brussels, I – like many – was riveted to the news. Watching CNN coverage, then PBS Newshour, reinforced my belief that PBS is head and shoulders above CNN in the range of news covered, the reporting of facts on the ground v personal opinions, and balance. All three Republican candidates and Bernie Sanders, as well as Hillary Clinton, were covered well. PBS remains tied to a tradition of fairness, balance and accuracy that is clearly demonstrated at times such as this. More for less indeed. Well done #PBSNewhour
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.]
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.
Five candidates are preparing for the CNN debate to be held in Las Vegas on 13 October 2015: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, but also Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee. There are two likely outcomes.
The first is an opportunity to actually debate the issues. The previous Fox and CNN debates failed to engage the candidates in a genuine debate of the issues, perhaps as a consequence of the sheer number of candidates on stage. On Tuesday, with five candidates, there will be no excuse for not asking the candidates to debate key issues, yet that remains to be seen. [Tracy Westen and I have been writing about this shortcoming of the GOP debates.]
Secondly, I expect that this is a key opportunity for the lesser known candidates to gain greater visibility. Martin O’Malley, for example, could gain support for his candidacy by virtue of just being heard. Even though there are fewer candidates in the Democratic Party Primary, it is amazing how focused the media have been on the two frontrunners, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Even Joe Biden, yet to decide on his candidacy, has received tremendous coverage. The other three candidates have received very little indeed. For example, the Sunday NYT (11 October 2015) prepares readers for the coming debate by discussing the debating skills of Bernie and Hillary, but not one column inch on O’Malley, Webb, or Chafee. This is one more illustration of the limitations of the mass media in elections. More use needs to be made of the Internet, Web and social media to cover a wider range of issues and candidates.
It might well be that the three lesser knowns will have the most to win in this CNN debate, as this stage will give them the best opportunity to-date to make their case as credible alternatives to the two front-runners. My prediction is that Martin O’Malley will be the biggest winner of Tuesday’s CNN debate, but the most important outcome should be the airing of candidate positions on key issues. This is the responsibility of the moderators at CNN.
Bad news heading into the #CNNDebate. CNN is strategising on ways to get the candidates ‘interacting’ with each other – which is what a debate should indeed entail (unlike the first Fox News-Facebook disaster). However, trying to generate arguments among the candidates, which seems to be the strategy, is different from getting the candidates to focus on issues. Donald Trump claims to be talented in the art of negotiation, so he must know that a successful negotiating strategy is not focused on who is right and who is wrong, but on the issue at hand – how to solve a problem, for example. Let’s hope the moderators can steer this to a debate over the issues and not over each others’ looks, energy, tone, or style.
I have been critical of the first GOP debate organized by Fox News and Facebook, despite its record-breaking audience. I’ve also written a number of posts about how the broadcast failed to focus on the issues. Given the excitement building around the CNN Debate on 16 September, let me make a simple appeal to the moderators, with apologies if this seems presumptuous:
First, avoid silly raise your hands questions. Ask simple open-ended questions about the issues. Let candidates explain their positions on some of the compelling issues of this election, such as around immigration and the Iran deal. I realize you cannot let every candidate comment on every issue, but if at least two comment, and one or more respond, you should begin to develop more voter awareness of positions on the key issues.
Secondly, avoid becoming the center of attention – that role should be left to the candidates. So rather than try to impress the audience or your peers with clever questions, try to enable the candidates to focus on the issues.
Much has been made about the degree style and personality were the key takeaways from the last debate, but that was in large part a consequence of the ways in which the debate was handled. By focusing on the issues, the style and personalities of the candidates will inevitably come through, but they will not be the only value of the debate.
CNN and GOP Need to Do Their Arithmetic
Those complaining about the way CNN is selecting candidates for the main event of the second GOP debate have a very good point. I’ve written before about the mistakes being made by Fox News in trying to conduct a live broadcast of a 17 person debate, but given that CNN is set to continue the same mistakes with two groups, the selection of those for the main event takes on even more importance for this second debate. CNN’s plans promise to compound the problems encountered by Fox. No lessons learned.
The complaint is that all the polls before (4 polls) and after (2 polls) the first Fox debate are simply averaged to determine the 10 leaders. This is biased against any change in the status of candidates. At minimum, the 4 polls before and the 2 polls after the first debate should be averaged to see who moves up and who moves down.
CNN falls back on the rules for an excuse to ignore this problem, but the rules they have drawn up with the GOP are blindingly biased. Please do the arithmetic and exercise some common sense.