Terry H. Schwadron
Aug. 2, 2019
A lot of people noticed that there was something wrong about those debates this week — something besides having way too many Democratic candidates.
It was the wording of the questions themselves, and the sequencing of directed responses by one candidate or another who was known to have opposed some aspect of the previous speaker.
In other words, the CNN panel (or its writers) set things up for maximum conflict.
Candidates overly eager to distinguish themselves fell right into the trap, avidly choosing to find fault with one another rather than looking at the broader election issues at hand. So, what resulted often were seemingly narrowed criticism about relatively small points by Candidate X, a chance to catch him or her in a poorly stated overstatement.
When paired with overly truncated times, what resulted were frequent missed opportunities for the listening audience to fully understand the point.
Maybe conflict makes for good television, or ratings, but it doesn’t make for good policy knowledge or effective tools to winnow the candidates for anything other than their ability to respond without blinking too much in the television lights.
I’ve interviewed a lot of people over the years. Generally, you don’t get the best results from asking time-pressured yes-no questions or those that start by asking for response to criticism offered by a third party. So, rather than asking Kamala Harris how her newly rewritten health plan is supposed to work, the question came out as a challenge in the form of a question to Joe Biden about Harris’ plan. It was not helpful.
Indeed, most, maybe even all the candidates spent the day after the debate seeking television interviews in which they had more than 30 seconds to try to describe, say, a health care system that represents a sixth of the United States economy. Those next-day resets also allowed candidates to acknowledge that they had not meant their attacks on one another to emerge as more criticism of former President Barack Obama’s administration than that of Donald Trump, who is their common opponent.
It has left the network open to criticism that it was using “Republican talking points” to draw out the most combative responses, particularly with only seconds-long answers allowed.
It’s worth examining because there will be more debates, though one hope is that it will become easier to moderate once some of the candidates start leaving the campaign for lack of money, popular support or the inability to hit Democratic National Committee eligibility rules (to which all the candidates had agreed beforehand.)
Let me underscore that there is nothing wrong with conflict in these settings, and there is nothing better than asking the candidates to distinguish themselves from one another by examining policy rather than personality. But the loaded questions seemed to be like slipping some weights into the debating boxing gloves.
Here’s Salon Magazine, for example. “CNN, being the enterprising cable network that it is, wasn’t about to let that stop it from actively making the night as dumb as humanly possible. And so the moderators peppered the candidates with questions that were evidently designed to produce bad answers in the short format. Question after question was framed up from the ideological perspective of a Heritage Foundation intern or otherwise crafted as a gotcha to generate a 15-second clip for Republican attack ads down the line.”
Vox News said,“The debate sometimes felt like it was more about attacking progressive policy proposals or responding to Republican talking points than it was substantively exploring the differences between the candidates.”
The Poynter Institute, a journalism education institution, said this: “The plan in any debate is for the fringe candidates to gang up on the leaders. That meant Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were going to be targets. No matter what the questions were, the candidates had a plan to attack. But the CNN moderators — and I’m talking specifically about Jake Tapper — made their job easier. Tapper’s moderating strategy appeared to be nothing more than antagonizing the candidates into disagreeing with one another. Many of his questions were a version of, “Why is (such-and-such candidate) wrong?”
As Poynter noted, it felt as if the first round of debates last month produced more organic disagreements and more substantial conversations. Maybe that’s because NBC’s moderators were a little more elastic about allowing candidates to finish thoughts rather than cutting them off mid-sentence. On the other hand, NBC did that ridiculous thing of asking candidates to raise their hands for or against complicated questions.
It would be wise for the networks to remember why we go through this process, and what the voting audience needs to do its civic job.