MSM anchors always struggle in big debates for a simple reason: The world in which they exist has a completely different set of priorities than the world in which most voters live, especially Republican voters. Really, when was the last time any MSM anchor really lost sleep over the price of gas or the inability to get an insurance company to run a test? Has an MSM anchor ever had to worry about the quality of a school system burdened by ESL kids, or emergency room overcrowding, both of which conditions are quite obvious secondary effects of massive illegal immigration in some areas of the country? A farmer or a landowner unable to use their property because of the Endangered Species Act is more likely to get an injunction from a federal district court –very unlikely, btw– than a hearing from the MSM.
Wolf Blitzer is probably the most professional of the big anchors right now, and is a good bet to host the fall ’08 debates between the nominees, but it was frustrating last night to see him steer away from the immigration debate that is transfixing the nation and leading to hugely important decisions in the life of the country. He had the entire range of spokesmen in front of him, but the constrained nature of the format and the desire to rush on to other issues was unfortunate. When John McCain declared against the border fence, for example, where was the follow-up? If Tancredo sounded nativist, why not push that with a direct ask to the Congressman followed by a discussion of the nativist fringe’s impact on the D.C. debate (vastly overstated, and often used as an excuse not to deal with the particulars of the bill)?
The problem of the question set is less pronounced with the Democratic debates as the MSM anchors understand and often sympathize with the left’s agenda, and thus Blitzer or Russert etc will naturally find themselves posing questions that intensely interest the Democratic primary electorate –Iraq, Iraq, Iraq– but couldn’t find a Second Amendment question with a searchlight and a blood hound.
Thus we are already seeing the emergence of perennials –the Mormon question is already as old as Rip Van Winkle, Rudy gets an abortion question every time, and did it surprise anyone that there are no fans of single payor health care on the GOP stage– but we don’t get a chance to hear the candidates either speak any piece they’d like to or to tackle new subjects. The war rightly gets some attention, but there is hardly a moment spent on the Kennedy Four or the Fort Dix Six except when the candidates bring up the plots and the terrible reality behind them. The evolution question has turned up in two GOP debates now, but nothing about the slow collapse of some school districts or the nature of the PRC’s challenge to the West.
The candidates would serve themselves very well to accept debate invitations that will allow for some non-Beltway anchors. Elite media, D.C. division, has rarely been as cut off from the rest of the country as it appears to be these days, and that isolation is impacting the campaign coverage in obvious ways.
UPDATE: Reviewing The Corner’s posts from last night, I see Rush Limbaugh was guest blogging and had this point:
Wolf’s Questions [Rush Limbaugh]
These questions are driven by the fears and biases of the liberal agenda. Note also how the screen graphics immediately match Wolf’s line of questioning, which means this whole thing was pre-produced by the producers at CNN. This is not a debate so much as a modified inquisition.
I don’t think the MSM is even aware of what it is doing –there just isn’t anyone in the room, from the lowliest intern through the senior producer and the anchor, who is self-aware enough to realize that they really don’t have a clue about what the public thinks or what the public would be interested in hearing. The advantage Rush -and me, and every other talker brings to political analysis– is daily immersion in the world of what motivates voters and what the range of opinions includes. There is a danger in what we do in hearing too much from the most motivated, but after a few years –and I have been fielding calls almost as long as Rush, as most of my colleagues have a decade or more of experience doing so– you do indeed get a great feel for what matters. Most MSMers never leave the studio and never hear the public except as an echo –a very distant echo– in the e-mails they ask to see.