A NOT SO GREAT DEBATE
November 19, 2007
Diamonds or pearls? Is that the question?
I’m not exactly crushed that I missed this moment in television journalism. Amid the mountains of information and opinion heaped on us this political season, it is but a pebble. But I am dismayed with the back story of manipulation that has emerged since this past week’s debate in Las Vegas. It suggests it may be easier to draw to an inside straight in Las Vegas than to expect straight journalism.
If you missed it, too—hey, there are more debates this political season than there are episodes to a TV drama—a UNLV student sought to ask the Democratic candidates about nuclear waste but was persuaded by CNN producers to ask Sen. Hillary Clinton about her preference in jewelry. For the record, candidate Clinton equivocated—“I want both.”
Politically, this was trivial. Journalistically, it’s unforgivable. CNN has let its production values, in this case preferring a light-hearted question to end the debate, intrude on its journalistic reputation. How many times have we heard Wolf Blitzer proclaim the network has “the best political team on television”? Yes, I’m chagrined that this is my old network and that it is also under fire this week for not candidly identifying the political leanings of its “commentators,” as though we might mistake long-time Clinton advocate James Carville for non-partisan.
The diamonds or pearls decision was undoubtedly made by unseen producers who, having vetted all the questions that participants were required to submit in advance, decided to go for politics light. Residents of Nevada are inclined to worry about nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain. Network producers from New York or Washington seem more inclined to think about Tiffany’s.
In one sense, we’ve been here before. A high school student at a 1992 MTV forum asked Bill Clinton: “boxers or briefs?” Clinton, who equivocated on a lot of campaign questions, barely hesitated in answering “usually briefs.”
The fault today may lie in the hype and hyper nature of heavily televised campaigns. There are more networks clamoring for their share of the action and attention than existed when I first hit the campaign trail for CNN in 1984. There are more candidates clamoring for their share of network attention in a campaign that began a couple years ago and still has a year to run. (Candidates, ask yourselves if you don’t share the blame for extreme breadth and frequent lack of depth in the coverage.)
In journalism classes, we tell students that there are really no dumb questions, if they are trying to elicit a useful piece of information. I’ve certainly constructed a few that were less than eloquent or well informed. There is also no reason to think that journalists necessarily ask better questions than might the voting public. After all, we present ourselves as the public’s voice. So why try to muzzle that voice? No self-respecting journalist would let an official dictate which questions may be asked.
The political debate has been substantially tarted up by competing networks to keep viewer interest over the protracted series of events. A simple dialogue among journalists and candidates doesn’t cut it any more. Now the stage is all bespangled. The candidates and questioners are introduced like rock stars. I rather liked the YouTube gimmick CNN used earlier this year. True, the couple of dozen questions were culled from thousands of YouTube submissions.
So if this is the way televised debates are going to go, I’d like to pre-submit my questions for the next debate in South Carolina in the hope that we can bring the discussion back to substantive matters.
On gun control: Over/under or side-by-side?
On higher education: Clemson or Carolina?
On public health and nutrition: Mustard, tomato or pepper and vinegar?
I won’t want to miss that debate!
Charles Bierbauer covered presidential campaigns from 1984 to 2000 for CNN. He is now dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university. He is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.com.