Hugs and Other Perils of Letting Non-Journalists Host Debates

hugsA debate moderator hugs the candidates—not something you see every day. Hence Rachel Maddow’s dual embraces of Hillary and Bernie became the lead story emerging from MSNBC’s debate. For that reason alone it was a bad move; a good debate should generate headlines about newsworthy content. When the headline is a controversy over your talent crossing the line, nobody benefits, except maybe rival networks who will make hay out of it.

Maddow’s very presence at the debate was controversial—opinionizers don’t usually get to play impartial journalists on TV, though it’s not exactly unheard of at MSNBC. Her questioning, like that of the presumptively impartial Chuck Todd, was satisfactory as far as it went. But there were many issues that went unaddressed. Hillary had just doubled down on the “vast right-wing conspiracy” meme, a phrase that was created to suggest that women were lying about poor misunderstood Bill. Yet this was unmentioned. Ms. Clinton’s biggest electoral liability may be her disastrous “honest and trustworthy” polling, but that issue got extremely short shrift. The Russian reset, Assad the reformer, and several other foreign policy issues dicey for Ms. Clinton did not make the cut.

Questioning on unsecured emails looked the other way regarding the human assets compromised, instead focusing on speculation about what the FBI would do. This is literally unknowable by Hillary Clinton, yet that’s what she was asked. Ms. Maddow raised the Flint water situation and several references to the governor of Michigan (a Republican) were strategically dropped. But the candidates were not asked about the EPA, the one agency involved in this mess a President would have some control over.

To be fair there were also some solid, substantive exchanges; we even found the slightly tedious discourse over who is or isn’t a “progressive” to have merit. But missed opportunities like those outlined above are what people are going to look at when you install an opinionizer friendly to the debaters as co-host. And so it is that, when Rachel Maddow engulfed the two potential Presidents in big, friendly embraces, it was like she was hugging a pair of Vermont Teddy Bears while wearing her favorite Pajamagram.

Friday night Megyn Kelly told Howard Kurtz she didn’t have a problem with opinionizers moderating debates, citing the precedent of Hugh Hewitt on CNN. However the situations are not comparable. MSNBC wanted Maddow to be a moderator because she is their most-watched program host. But Hewitt was foisted on CNN. Republicans had insisted that CNN place a bonafide conservative somewhere on the questioning panel, and the network caved. (The GOP tried that with Fox News, only FNC didn’t capitulate.) So CNN signed a co-sponsorship deal with Salem Broadcasting that made their star Hewitt a questioner—just as questions from youtube are part of the deal when you co-sponsor a debate with Google. As it turned out CNN marginalized Hewitt (who was not a host or a moderator but on a panel off to the side with Dana Bash) to the point where some viewers forgot he was there. Still, even with extremely limited air time, he managed to have a moment analogous to the Maddow hug. Mr. Hewitt was so pleased at the response to one of his questions that he actually applauded the candidate’s answer—on camera!

There’s a way for MSNBC to avoid these sorts of embarrassments. If Maddow must be a moderator, then make the debate a special edition of The Rachel Maddow Show, not a production of MSNBC’s news department. Do something like that any time you want an opinion host to moderate, and no one will care if the host hugs the candidates, applauds their answers, or invites them out for drinks. If MSNBC’s “hard news” division wants to do a debate, then keep the opinion hosts out of it. Leave the journalism to NBC journalists—Chuck Todd, Andrea Mitchell, etc. The Cable Gamer may have issues with some of these people, but at least their job description directs them to be fair and impartial. When you bring opinionizers into a debate, you are expecting them to keep a promise they never made.

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26 comments

  1. Michael T. (@sdmike1974)

    I come down on the side of the Washington Post’s Eric Wemple on this one.

    “Consider the hugs through the prism of journalism ethics. Were they transparent? Yes, there’s video (see above) of the hugs, which took place in front of the cameras; any clandestine backstage moderator-candidate hugging is strictly forbidden. Were they evenhanded? Yes, both Sanders and Clinton received hugs of very comparable warmth, duration and hand-pats. Were they prejudicial? Nah, coming at the end of the event, it’s hard to say that the affection received by Maddow influenced the questions, which were solid.”

    Was it unusual? Yes.

    But if you do a Google search, you will find almost without exception all the criticism is coming from the right,,,people and bloggers who don’t like Rachel Maddow.

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  2. Michael Bennett

    I come down on the side of the Washington Post’s Eric Wemple on this one.

    “Consider the hugs through the prism of journalism ethics. Were they transparent? Yes, there’s video (see above) of the hugs, which took place in front of the cameras; any clandestine backstage moderator-candidate hugging is strictly forbidden. Were they evenhanded? Yes, both Sanders and Clinton received hugs of very comparable warmth, duration and hand-pats. Were they prejudicial? Nah, coming at the end of the event, it’s hard to say that the affection received by Maddow influenced the questions, which were solid.”

    Was it unusual? Yes. Was it as big a deal as some are making it out to be? It appears to depend on which tribe you’re in.

    If you do a Google search, you wil find almost without exception all the criticism is coming from the right,,,people and bloggers who don’t like Rachel Maddow.

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    • ceceliamc

      I don’t get the reasoning that because we know where an opinionizer stands politically that it’s okay for them to indicate a certain familial familiarity and ease with the candidates with in the context of an event where distance and discipline in eliciting the most information for the public is the point.

      Maddow was supposed to be representing all of us at that debate, not just the gamut of Democrats from liberals to leftists.

      The hint of any other dynamic suggests that the focus will be on the candidates proving party/ideological bonafidies rather than answering questions or accounting for broader issues that may be of interest to the opposing party because they are potential damaging.

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  3. notfoxy

    Neil Cavuto was on the FBN debate; he was not foisted on them by the RNC. I agree with Megyn, there’s no problem with an opionater being on a same-party debate panel. In fact, it may lead to better questions that concern voters in said party.

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    • Sydney Bloom

      I’m not even considering the CNBC or FBN debates in the same way as they are not general news channels. I agree the same arguments can be made but I don’t know that they apply.

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      • notfoxy

        Yeah, that’s too fine a hair for me to split. I deal with presidential debates as stand-alone events shown on various networks. Where I would draw the line is having, say – as Rachel suggested in a tweet, never gonna happen – a Democrat on a Republican debate panel (and vice versa), or having any opinion host on a general election debate.

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    • ceceliamc

      I think it’s a mistake just like Hewit was a mistake.

      However, in order to get the same dynamic of what occurred at MSNBC you’d have Ham co-moderating a Fkx-GOP debate with Baier.

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    • Sydney Bloom

      A distinction I tried to draw in the post was between moderators who control the debate and questioners who ask a relative handful of questions but aren’t there as representatives of the news organization sponsoring the event. That’s what Ham was tonight, and what Hewitt was on CNN. I still don’t see why partisans need to be part of a news organization’s debate; there are plenty of partisan forums (including programs on those same news channels) where candidates can be grilled from a partisan perspective. But I don’t regard someone asking a half-dozen questions over three hours and not hosting or moderating the debate to be equivalent to having the entire debate co-moderated by a person with a rooting interest in having the participants come off well. Even if a partisan moderator asks perfect questions (which Maddow did not do) they are needlessly tainting the production with partisanship.

      If people want partisans conducting debates just let them do it on their program or on a special edition of same, without dragging down the entire news department of the network to that level.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michael Bennett

        I would only add the following:

        On a nightly basis both Rachel Maddow and Megyn Kelly spend significant air time covering issues that appeal to (cynics/haters might say “pander to”) their core audiences of liberals and conservatives.

        Yet both came out ot the debates they have hosted virtually free of chargers there was a line of questioning with a partisan slant — unlike some have said about Hugh Hewitt and MK Ham.

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      • ceceliamc

        If Joe is going to wave away all the formal authority and representational position implicit in the designation of moderator then we can defacto title “moderator” to anyone who inquires of a candidate via YouTube or a townhall meeting.

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  4. ceceliamc

    Michael, that argument is based upon the designation of entire topics as being right or left depending upon the players.

    I don’t think what happened in Flint, MI is ESSENTIALY a Right vs Left issue, though Maddow may make it so by maximizing the role of a Republican governor and casting state and federal regulating agencies in lesser roles. What happen in Flint should still be of nonpartisan interest

    The same can be said for Megy Kelly’s exploration of the rise of the American New Left during the Vietnam Era and its ascendency again after U.S. wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq. This is very much a theme of the Democratic Party now and the Republican Party via an interventionist stance abroad and a perspective of domestic border control. American Exceptionalism vs American military and monetary insurgency is undeniably germane as Democrat Hillary Clinton works very hard to cast herself in a light that will appeal to a ideological perspective inherent in a demographic dominated by Democrat Bernie Sanders, and Republican do similarly as regards domestic and foreign policy.

    The worst you can say about Kelly is that she addresses these issues as though the right had an equally valid point in the debate, with liberal guests to argue otherwise. The worst you can say of Maddow is that she does not.

    What I suggest to you when consigning issues as being wholly partisan in nature is that you “check your privilege”. We do know by statistics on which side the media overwhelming falls on. That alone calls for caution when casting such issues.

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  5. Michael Bennett

    Proposition: Are Megyn and Rachel two sides of the same coin in airing partisan agenda-driven cable news shows?

    As one peruses the Daily Howler’s frequent legitimate criticism of Rachel Maddow and Media Matters’ frequent legitimate criticism of Megyn Kelly I would still submit that one would be hard pressed to claim one is significantly less partisan than the other.

    While it’s true that Megyn has far more guests than Rachel — including some with liberal views — she also has many guests like Frank Luntz, Tony Perkins and Glenn Beck who do little to dissuade those who claim the Kelly File is often a source of misinformation.

    http://dailyhowler.blogspot.com/

    http://mediamatters.org/tags/megyn-kelly?p=1&s=15

    We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one.

    Cheers.

    Like

    • ceceliamc

      Again…check your privilege… Why would having conservative guests on (as well as liberal) be representative of bias that is equal to Maddow’s lineup of journalists, democratic politicians, and liberal opinionizers?

      Like

    • notfoxy

      Good luck with that one, Michael. I purposely ignored Megyn in this conversation because Fox viewers are adamant that she doesn’t host a right-leaning show. It’s even harder to argue now because she recently seems to have abandoned the concept. It’s a bizarre transformation to watch; it’s like she was playing a character similar to Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report, then started a new show like he did as herself.

      Like

    • gatxer

      So you get ALL your media info from 2 left blogs……..hint….NEVER take news about something that the blog says they are at war with…..it aint going to be factually………you almost do better listening to the stooges over media matters.

      Like

      • Michael Bennett

        Gaxter wrote, “So you get ALL your media info from 2 left blogs.”

        Hopefully you are not suggesting The Daily Howler is a “left blog.”

        If you are, sorry, but you are being delusional. Just based on Somerby’s almost daily criticism of Maddow alone. His mission in life is to take on the MSM. If he has ever criticized the conservative media it was rare and I must have missed.

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      • gatxer

        Opps your right…I was thinking of another Blog……….but my point stands……Media matters has stated on the record that they are at war with Fox News…….but you get your info about Fox News from them? Sorry but only a fool would do that….sorry that stooge behavior. I don’t mean to insult you….but really? That’s as bad as idiots who get there news about MSNBC from Newsbusters.

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  6. notfoxy

    Speaking of Megyn – and, coincidentally, Colbert – she was on his post-Super Bowl show and took a shot at O’Reilly and Hannity for not working live. That was interesting.

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  7. ceceliamc

    Michael, Bob Somerby spent years criticizing conservatives and still does in the sense that he points to us as emblematic of the low standards liberals are adopting.

    His focus started changing as the culture wars became the sphere of political focus and an expanded media meant an end to what Somerby saw as their role as arbiters of reason, and discernment.

    It’s a indication of the marginalization of conservatives that we don’t have a Somerby. That marginalization has largely occurred due to our own blinkered efforts to portray inherent self-interest as something more than a trait that should be viewed as normal and healthy to the degree that it is harnessed and disciplined in the light the common interest, to an argument that self-interest is innately facilitating of restraint AND…alternately…of freedom…

    I wish we conservatives had one of our own who warned us that greed isn’t good and that people don’t act to the good of freedom and stewardship in matters of privilege, position, land and other assets, even when it is in their “self-interest” not to exploit them.

    Yeah, it’s easy for me to say that you’re lucky in Somerby to have such a brilliant sage; my ox isn’t being so faithfully gored.

    However, you’re lucky.

    Like

    • ceceliamc

      The point is that Somerby did criticise the conservative media, this was certainly not rare then, and he went on to focusing his criticism on the mainstream and liberal media when he saw his peeps adopting the same sloppiness and narrative driven agenda.

      Yeah, you missed it.

      Unlike Somerby, I think the media was even then skewered left of center and was glad for a culture where Uncle Walter and company were no longer our information gate-keepers.

      However, I agree that this has turned nearly every mainstream media outlet into the equalivalent of the National Enquirer,p, wholly unwilling to lift anything more heavy than the subjective stuff they can pull out of their butts. In league with a corporate culture who eager for ratings grabbing shite up and to the point it does not offend the great gods of liberalism — identity politics, abortion, income redistribution, gun control.

      Like

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