A 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.