I’m spending this week experimenting with different possible forms of output for a new project I’m pursuing that involves a daily critique of American political journalism. Please share your thoughts in comments, or at email@example.com.
It’s not uncommon for political debate moderators to be critiqued the morning after.
But I’ve never seen anything like the reaction to CNN’s performance on Tuesday night.
A whole bunch of things are going on here.
Yes, the questions were idiotic, largely based on Republican talking points, and designed purely to inflict damage. Yes, the format was a total disaster, with moderators constantly cutting off responses. And yes, there was an aggressive but entirely unacknowledged shilling for a centrist agenda.
But it’s more than that. It’s about CNN, and journalism, and what qualifies as political debate today, and, ultimately, the debasement of the single most important political medium in the world to a point where it creates, sustains, and protects the kind of vacuous, violent, circus atmosphere in which people like Donald Trump thrive and democracy suffers.
David Dayen‘s piece in the American Prospect provided some extraordinary analysis:
It would give Tapper and his other moderators too much credit to say that their relentless right-wing framing of the questions was animated by a desire to protect the insurance industry and the border patrol. But that’s not really it. CNN has no politics. CNN has no understanding of politics or policy. … The CNN debate was an inevitable by-product of turning news into an entertainment and cultural product.
Entertainment industry morons only understand how to stage television through the lens of forcing conflict. The questions weren’t really prompts as much as they were invitations to fight.”
[T]he empty suits at CNN trying to create “matchups” and “drama” have corrupted us all, as much as anything else in politics.
Jonathan Bernstein wrote in a Bloomberg opinion column:
Those [contentious] questions have superficial appeal because they appear to get to what separates the candidates. And they promise fireworks, with candidates forced to argue. But in reality, invitation-to-fight questions tend to emphasize the differences that the moderators select, which may or may not be substantively important ones. It leads the debate to focus on areas of internal candidate differences, leaving policy areas where they agree irrelevant – even if those areas are important, and contain real disputes with the other party.
Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote:
With frustratingly tiny and rigidly enforced response time, outsize attention to fringe candidates and divisive questions — some of which could have been framed by the Republican National Committee — the first Detroit debate was a lost opportunity to inform the voting public.
Ashley Feinberg wrote in the Huffington Post:
[T]he 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.
Feinberg helpfully “translated” CNN’s questions to reveal their true intent. They included: Why do you hate the middle class? Why are you betraying unions? What words would you like Donald Trump to quote when he attacks you and immigrants in the same breath? Which candidates do you think are too far left? Are you too weak to do wars? Are you too young, or is Bernie Sanders too old?
Vox’s Aaron Rupar wrote:
Though no Republicans were physically onstage on Tuesday night in Detroit, it too often seemed they were living rent-free inside the moderators’ heads.
But the key to it all is the recognition that, as Sarah Ellison reported for the Washington Post, CNN president Jeff Zucker, the man responsible for “The Apprentice”, was micromanaging. And as she put it, charitably, “the muscle memory of cable news as entertainment is hard to retrain.”
This matters so much right now because this approach plays to Trump’s strengths.
I happened to read the Kirkus Review of New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik’s forthcoming book, Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America. His thesis is that for Trump, cable TV news, with its “constant fear and passion” and need to “agitate their viewers, not settle them,” was a perfect fit.
You thought Fox News was the enemy? It is. It corrupts small minds. But CNN may be doing more damage in the long run.