Debating the presidential debates

By Tom Jones
The Poynter Institute

Some leftover thoughts from last Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate:
First off, nice comeback for the Dems in terms of interest. The debate averaged 7.3 million viewers on CNN, which is up more than a million from the 6.2 million for December’s debate on PBS and CNN.
(Oh, quick side note: the “Jeopardy Greatest of All Time” tournament drew huge TV numbers: 14.4 million, 14.8 million, 15.4 million and 13.5 million for the four nights.)
Let’s see if the Democrats can keep interest up because plenty of debates are on the way. Debates are scheduled for Feb. 7 in New Hampshire, Feb. 19 in Las Vegas and Feb. 25 in South Carolina. That’s three in only 19 days and the potential for debate fatigue. This is after seven debates so far.
FiveThirtyEight’s Maggie Koerth wrote, “The downside to having had this many Democratic primary debates already is that it all kind of feels predictable and unsurprising at this point. But realistically, this is the point where most voters actually start to tune in, right?”
We shall see.
Maybe a heavy rotation of debates made things more difficult for CNN on Tuesday. I mean, there are only so many times you can ask candidates how they are going to pay for their healthcare plans or why they have what it takes to be commander-in-chief.
Whatever the reason, 24 hours after the latest debate, reviews of Tuesday’s moderators performance were mixed. #CNNisTrash was trending on Twitter for a while during and after the debate. I criticized Abby Phillip’s question of Bernie Sanders that essentially called him a liar over his denials that he ever told Elizabeth Warren that a woman couldn’t be elected president.
HuffPost’s Zach Carter had a story with the headline: “CNN Completely Botched The Democratic Presidential Debate.” Carter wrote that the questions were “terrible” and “awful.” “… They were the focus of CNN’s tedious, interminable, frivolous debate on Tuesday night, a fiasco of irrelevance held three weeks before the Iowa caucuses.” He also called it the worst debate of this cycle so far.
Rolling Stone called CNN’s performance “villainous and shameful.” Writer Matt Taibbi wrote, “Over a 24-hour period before, during, and after the debate, CNN bid farewell to what remained of its reputation as a nonpolitical actor via a remarkable stretch of factually dubious reporting, bent commentary, and heavy-handed messaging.”
That seems a little too strong. I don’t believe CNN has permanently sullied its reputation. And Phillip’s question notwithstanding, I thought the moderators did a decent job. But perhaps the night can be a cautionary tale for ABC, NBC and CBS, which (in that order) host the next three debates. The stakes are getting higher and the scrutiny is getting more intense.

Author: Rachel Howell

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