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The CNN Debate:How Television Producers Are Killing Poltical Debate

Monday, November 19, 2007  |  posted by Hugh Hewitt

I am with Ed Morrissey and Geraghty the Indispensable on the “controversy” surrounding the audience participation part of last week’s Democratic debate.  It is the Democratic primary season, and the questions Democratic voters who are undecided want to hear should come from democratic partisans who have a stake in the race.  The same should hold true for the GOP side, though too often the GOP debates have been dominated by MSM agenda journalism which values issues very differently and the center-right electorate participating in the primaries.

Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder –who has risen to the very top of political bloggers in a relatively short period of time– has a post on another aspect of the debate —the “diamonds vs. pearls” question which raises a different criticism of the format –that the audience members weren’t allowed to just ask the questions they wanted to ask.  Questions were prescreened by CNN, and then changed out as the debate progressed.  One student was told not to ask about Yucca Mountain, and ended up asking the inane “diamonds or pearls” question:

Sam Feist, the executive producer of the debate, said that the student was asked to choose another question because the candidates had already spent about ten minutes discussing Yucca Mountain.

“When her Yucca mountain question was asked, she was given the opportunity to ask another question, and my understanding is that the [diamond v. pearls] questions was her other question,” Feist said. “She probably was disappointed, but we spent a lot of time with a bunch of different candidates on Yucca Mountain, and we were at the end of the debate.”

This is producer’s logic, and it often kills televised political discourse.  Yucca Mountain may be the single most important issue among Nevada Democrats.  It has consumed and will consume thousands of hours of debate inside the state over the past few years, and will continue to do so.  Another question or five more questions about Yucca Mountain would have been fine.  If Feist had been producing Lincoln-Douglas, I suppose he would have told participants to get off the whole slavery thing as it had been thoroughly aired in the first half hour of the first debate.

There is also the problem of limited follow-up by the moderators at these things, and none at all from the audience.  Skilled politicians rarely say anything of interest that we don’t already know when being questioned by media types or the public.  The best way to get something fresh is to ask for a reaction to recent news, or to simply bear down on particulars of positions.  One-offs from the audience seem to television producers interested in maintaining audience share to be a great way to break the monotony of moderator-candidate exchanges, but the core audience for such a broadcast are interested partisans and media/political elites, and neither group really cares what these audience members ask.  They want to see the candidates respond to tough questions.  Thus the memorable moment of the debate was Senator Obama wilting under Wolf’s polite but persistent insistence of a clear answer on the question of drivers’ license for illegal aliens, and the exchange between the Senators Clinton and Edwards. 

We will probably end up with two nominees in February (or at the very latest in mid-March) who have never been on stage with one or two other serious candidates under the questioning of a polite but firm and knowledgeable moderator.  Thus the most important information a voter could receive about a candidate –their thinking, under scrutiny and on their feet, about the key details of important issues and responses to plausible hypotheticals about what might confront them in office– will not have occurred even once in the longest campaign on record.  Instead we got snowmen and pearls.

That the values of television producers dominate political debate is a failure of the MSM of the first order, and because that failure operates to protect from public scrutiny the intellectual inconsistencies of the left generally and the shallowness of Democratic policies on Iraq and Iran specifically, it is a built-in bias that favors Hillary above all.

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