Once the gold standard for all-news television, the Cable News Network used the night to make a convincing argument that it should never again be entrusted with a presidential debate.
That’s not a Rush Limbaugh monologue, above, that’s a verbatim quote from The New York Observer, not exactly a red-state publication.
Welcome to The Cable Game, Steve Kornacki! You seem to be mostly a political columnist for the Observer, but you have written a terrific piece on CNN’s handling of the Las Vegas debate last week that’s required reading for Cable Gamers.
In doing so, Kornacki went way beyond the nasty flap over the obvious unfairness of CNN inviting Clinton sidekicks James Carville and David Gergen to assess the debate, and got into the even more profound question of whether CNN was fair in the basic structuring of the debate itself.
Kornacki expresses himself clearly, and he even uses pop-culture references that TCG heartily endorses, as when he compared Wolf Blitzer to Michael Buffer, the “let’s get ready to rumble guy” from pro wrestling. There’s nothing wrong with showmanship, of course, even in the news–so long as show values don’t trump solid journalism, especially when the White House is at stake.
Here’s some more from Kornacki’s brilliant piece, detailing how CNN brought pro wrestling ethics and values to presidential politics:
The network’s journalistic crimes are legion, starting with how the debate—which, at least in theory, is supposed to serve as a public service to voters—was promoted. In full-page ads, CNN cast it as pure sport, a boxing match in which “the gloves will come off.” Really? How would CNN know ahead of time that that this would be a contentious forum, especially after most of the previous debates had been tame, unless they were planning to force conflict? …
It got worse when it was time for the actual debate. First, CNN persisted with the prize-fighting motif, with moderator Wolf Blitzer playing the Michael Buffer role and calling the candidates to the stage individually, like boxers entering the ring. Then Mr. Blitzer introduced Campbell Brown, John Roberts, and Suzanne Malveaux, fellow CNN personalities who would join in the questioning.
“They are part of the very best political team,” he informed viewers.
As the candidates were fitted with their microphones—shouldn’t that have been done backstage?—Mr. Blitzer awkwardly handed off to analyst Gloria Borger, who stuck with the boxing imagery as she told viewers which candidates could be expected to come out “swinging” in the public policy forum they were about to watch.
If CNN was intent on giving America a fight, it could have at least tried to put on a fair one.
But the audience at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas was slanted heavily in favor of New York’s junior senator. One of the first questions of the night, from Mr. Blitzer, sought to incite a tangle between Barack Obama and Mrs. Clinton. Mrs. Clinton used her turn to criticize Mr. Obama’s health care plan, but when Mr. Obama began, loud shouts from the audience distracted him and viewers at home.
So pro-Clinton was the crowd that Mrs. Clinton needed only to pause for a beat during an answer and the audience would fill the vacuum with raucous cheers. Meanwhile, when Mr. Obama and John Edwards sought to engage Mrs. Clinton, they were shouted down.
Conspiracy theorists will say that CNN had packed the crowd for its old friend. But the audience imbalance, like the inclusion of Mr. Carville and Mr. Gergen, was more an indictment of CNN’s incompetence. The network farmed out the distribution of tickets without insisting on any kind of balance. The resulting Clinton rah-rahing was both distracting and misleading to viewers.
Similar incompetence was at work in the framing of questions. Time and again, candidates were presented with simplistic hypothetical scenarios and told to pick one side. They were invariably presented false choices—human rights or national security?—but if they failed to provide direct answers, they risked looking like typically evasive politicians.
And nothing but incompetence can explain why CNN decided to end on a “cute” question, prodding a UNLV student—who had hoped to quiz the candidates on the Yucca Mountain issue—to inquire if Mrs. Clinton preferred diamonds or pearls.
TCG closing comment: At least in pro wrestling, you know what you’re getting–you’re getting a show, and nothing more. Now, maybe, people will know that, too, about CNN, thanks to Kornacki’s insightful play-by-play critique.
Reposted from The Cable Game, 21 November 2007