Democratic debates don't need spectacle of live drawings and opinion hosts

Democratic debates don't need spectacle of live drawings and opinion hosts
© Hill Illustration

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 WarrenElizabeth WarrenIn politics, as in baseball, it ain't over till it's over Trump defends Roger Stone move: He was target of 'Witch Hunt' Democrats blast Trump for commuting Roger Stone: 'The most corrupt president in history' MORE (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 BidenJoe BidenDavis: Supreme Court decision is bad news for Trump, good news for Vance Teachers face off against Trump on school reopenings Biden wins Puerto Rico primary MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden wins Puerto Rico primary In politics, as in baseball, it ain't over till it's over Biden wins Louisiana primary MORE (I-Vt.) if those candidates aren't even on stage. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Warren was left with punching down against those who have almost no chance at the nomination. The following night, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHillicon Valley: Facebook considers political ad ban | Senators raise concerns over civil rights audit | Amazon reverses on telling workers to delete TikTok Senators raise concerns over Facebook's civil rights audit Biden's marijuana plan is out of step with public opinion MORE (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 ToddCharles (Chuck) David ToddUS testing official: 'Dr. Fauci is not 100 percent right' Trump dings CNN, 'Morning Joe' ratings as Tucker Carlson sets record Cuomo: Trump administration 'in denial' about coronavirus 'problem' MORE and José Diaz-Balart — work in the news divisions of NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo.

But rounding out its lineup, NBC chose Rachel MaddowRachel Anne MaddowSusan Rice sees stock rise in Biden VP race Trump dings CNN, 'Morning Joe' ratings as Tucker Carlson sets record Susan Rice 'humbled and honored' by rumors Biden considering her for VP MORE, a partisan opinion host. You may recall that Maddow — who is MSNBC's top-rated host — actually hugged Sanders and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden leads Trump in Florida, tied in Arizona and Texas: poll We haven't seen how low it can go There's a big blue wave coming MORE on live television before a national television audience after a debate in 2016. 

CNN is now making the same mistake in choosing Don LemonDon Carlton LemonLoeffler doubles down against BLM, calls movement 'anti-Semitic' amid continued WNBA blowback NASCAR's Bubba Wallace: 'relieved' FBI investigation found 'this wasn't what we feared it was' Bubba Wallace dismisses FBI findings: 'It's a straight-up noose' MORE to moderate the debates, alongside Dana BashDana BashIn politics, as in baseball, it ain't over till it's over Miami-Dade mayor: 'It won't be long' before hospitals reach capacity Devos says CDC guidelines on schools reopening 'meant to be flexible' MORE and Jake TapperJacob (Jake) Paul TapperCarson calls for local leaders to 'condemn vandalization of statues,' 'dismantle autonomous zones' Officials couldn't reach Trump on golf course to delete retweet of video showing man chanting 'white power': report Democratic officials, governors push for nationwide mask mandate as administration defends state-by-state approach MORE. 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. 

ADVERTISEMENT

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.