Democratic debates don’t need spectacle of live drawings and opinion hosts
Televised presidential debates are very good for the cable news business. But are they becoming more about entertainment than informing voters on candidates?
Take CNN’s decision to do a live televised draw of the candidate lineup for the network’s upcoming debates. Draws like this are common with events like the NBA draft lottery, but something never seen before in modern politics.
As a result, the network risks another scenario where one night is crowded with top-tier candidates and the other is filled with politicians polling below 3 percent, as we saw in Miami on June 26 and 27. Those debates were hosted by NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo.
For a candidate like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), there can be real consequences from randomly choosing from the 20 Democratic candidates. She was picked to appear on June 26 with no real top-tier candidates alongside her. It’s hard to draw a contrast with former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) if those candidates aren’t even on stage.
Warren was left with punching down against those who have almost no chance at the nomination. The following night, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who had been struggling in the polls while sitting in fourth or fifth place overall, hammered Biden directly and got the most ink after the debates.
There’s also the issue with being forgotten in a span of just a few hours after the debate is over. Because thanks to the back-to-back format, candidates appearing on the second debate night will overshadow those from the night before, simply by happenstance.
After night No. 1, there will be reviews and spin post-debate and into the morning. By the afternoon, however, the previews will already be prevalent for night No. 2. But after night No. 2, there are no more debates left to preview, giving the second night longer legs in the news cycle.
The moderator selections have been faulty as well. Four of the moderators — Savannah Guthrie, Lester Holt, Chuck Todd and José Diaz-Balart — work in the news divisions of NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo.
But rounding out its lineup, NBC chose Rachel Maddow, a partisan opinion host. You may recall that Maddow — who is MSNBC’s top-rated host — actually hugged Sanders and Hillary Clinton on live television before a national television audience after a debate in 2016.
CNN is now making the same mistake in choosing Don Lemon to moderate the debates, alongside Dana Bash and Jake Tapper. Lemon is listed as an anchor on CNN.com, but he is obviously one of the most opinionated people in cable news. Almost all of those opinions are anti-Trump.
Lemon recently compared the president to Hitler and declared Trump to be a racist. And there’s the time he called Trump “conman in chief” while mocking him for declaring bankruptcy over some of his casinos back in the ’80s and early ’90s.
So, why would CNN or NBC choose an opinion host to moderate? The decision opens the networks up to criticism, especially when considering there are plenty of hard-news journalists either network could tap for the role.
NBC has Steve Kornacki, for example, who is as ensconced and knowledgeable as anyone in political media. He deserves a shot. As does CNN’s Erin Burnett, who anchors a primetime program but has yet to moderate any primary debate, despite being on its air since 2011.
In August 2015, more than 24 million tuned into Fox News for the first primary debate of the 2016 campaign season.
The recent Miami debates drew in 15.3 million and 18.1 million viewers, respectively.
Debates are very good business. But it doesn’t have to be show business.
Live draws and partisan opinion hosts need not be added. The interest is already there.
Joe Concha is a media reporter for The Hill and co-host of “WOR Tonight with Joe Concha” weeknights on 710-WOR in New York. Follow Concha on Twitter @JoeConchaTV.
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