Debate focus on spectacle over substance doesn't help pick best candidate

Debate focus on spectacle over substance doesn't help pick best candidate
© Getty Images

Next time a political party wants to host a debate, it would be well advised to hire a high school debate teacher to oversee it. That’s because the major news organizations, particularly NBC, have proven they are unable to handle the task. NBC’s coordination of Wednesday’s Democratic debate in Las Vegas was unfocused and largely inept. The result was an unhelpful verbal brawl that was decidedly short on the substance the nation sorely needs.

The “debate,” if anybody wants to call it that, was entertaining enough for political wonks and casual observers wanting to see a middle school lunchroom argument. Fireworks, cheap shots and consultant-driven one-liners ruled the evening.

Reasoned, measured expressions of ideas were hard to find.

ADVERTISEMENT

That suited NBC just fine, apparently, on the theory that verbal brick bats made for better television than intelligent discussions of substance.

NBC news anchor and lead debate moderator Lester Holt lost control of the setting almost immediately.

Candidates waved their arms like first graders wanting to be called on by the teacher, and when they didn’t get recognized by Holt, the candidates just butted in whenever. Butting in worked great for Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenNew poll shows Markey with wide lead over Kennedy in Massachusetts Trump and allies grapple with how to target Harris Chris Wallace: Kamala Harris 'not far to the left despite what Republicans are gonna try to say' MORE (D-Mass.), who elbowed her way into getting the most speaking time of any candidate on the stage, even though her candidacy has faded and her prospects of getting the nomination are quite thin.

Former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael BloombergEverytown on the NRA lawsuit: 'Come November, we're going to make sure they're out of power, too' Hillicon Valley: Trump raises idea of delaying election, faces swift bipartisan pushback | Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google release earnings reports | Senators ask Justice Department to investigate TikTok, Zoom Meme group joins with Lincoln Project in new campaign against Trump MORE spoke the least, which might have been just as well for him, since it often appeared he wasn’t sure what to say anyway. Still, Bloomberg received three and a half fewer minutes to speak than Warren. Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenRon Johnson signals some GOP senators concerned about his Obama-era probes On The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Biden commemorates anniversary of Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally: 'We are in a battle for the soul of our nation' MORE also received short speaking time, disappearing for large segments at a time. NBC needs to find a stopwatch and hand it to Holt.

It is unclear why NBC crowded the moderator table with five panelists, given that Jon Ralston of the Nevada Independent and Vanessa Hauc of Telemundo were largely invisible. Even though there were five panelists, none seemed able to control the candidates on stage. Holt, especially, seemed unsure of when to let the candidates just take over the show or when to inject himself to cut off tangents or move the discussion along. The debate “rules” Holt alluded to at the outset went out the window in the first five minutes.

ADVERTISEMENT

The panelists failed to provide questions or prompts that could provide in-depth challenges equally for all candidates. Instead, the journalists teed up candidates with individually targeted attack questions that would be better suited for a press conference. As any scholastic debate coach knows, good questions are ones that provide each debater with the same difficulty and opportunity. The NBC journalists, however, continually sought to grab the spotlight by trying to play “gotcha” and lobbing out questions designed to generate fireworks. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOcasio-Cortez's 2nd grade teacher tells her 'you've got this' ahead of DNC speech Trump and allies grapple with how to target Harris Chris Wallace: Kamala Harris 'not far to the left despite what Republicans are gonna try to say' MORE was questioned about his health records. Bloomberg was questioned about his tax records. And in one of the more superficial moments of the debate, Hauc zinged Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharElection security advocates see strong ally in Harris The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - The choice: Biden-Harris vs. Trump-Pence California Democrats back Yang after he expresses disappointment over initial DNC lineup MORE with a “question” about not remembering the name of the president of Mexico.

Then there was NBC’s Chuck Todd who asked the blockbuster question, “Mayor Bloomberg, should you exist?” and then followed up with “Have you earned too much money?” Todd later forced the six candidates to give one sentence answers to the complex matter of a split party that could lead to a brokered convention. Such a topic surely should allow candidates to provide insight and nuance to their answers. Todd has not figured out that managing a debate stage is not the same as running “Meet the Press.”

The evening was long on political machinery and ad hominem attacks, but short on policy insights. The candidates share the responsibility for that negligence, but the NBC moderators did little to guide the content. More time was spent on the Las Vegas culinary union than on the current state of the economy. International relations only got a glancing treatment, largely in the context of climate change. Education policy, terrorism, and even Trump’s impeachment were all topics missing in action. Only two candidates, Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - The choice: Biden-Harris vs. Trump-Pence California Democrats back Yang after he expresses disappointment over initial DNC lineup Obamas, Clintons to headline Biden's nominating convention MORE and Klobuchar addressed immigration, and only in the context of Klobuchar’s bad memory about Mexico’s president.

NBC’s moderators clearly failed to prompt a debate of substance.

The poor performance of NBC harms the nation’s political process. The voters deserve a televised debate that focuses on their priorities and not those of self-absorbed media personalities seeking to spark a spectacle. The process of democracy was minimized on the debate stage in Las Vegas.

Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.