Nevada Debate Analysis: A CNN Critique

This post is only an analysis of CNN's coverage of the Democratic debate tonight in Las Vegas.

Of all the debates I've seen so far, be they Republican or Democratic, this debate was among the most poorly conducted. I admittedly like CNN and generally respect its programming, but I was particularly disappointed by its handling of the debate tonight. As a journalism graduate and a journalism student, I offer these criticisms:

There's no point in having a moderator if the moderator doesn't have any control. Wolf Blitzer essentially let the candidates talk over him and ignore his feeble attempts to rein them in when they strayed off topic. As a result, this undermined Blitzer's authority and made the debate seem more like a free for all at times. Blitzer also should have exercised more control over the audience, as some members of the crowd started shouting at the candidates during their responses, which was entirely inappropriate. I realize that debates are often tough to moderate because politicians can be egotistical at times and tend to steer their responses back to their familiar talking points. But it is not unreasonable to expect more from a moderator than what Blitzer offered tonight.

There's no point in inviting all the candidates to the debate if you're not going to let all the candidates participate. According to this tally from MSNBC's First Read, Chris Dodd and Dennis Kucinich had less than 10 minutes each of talking time while Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had more than twice as much time. It is very disrespectful to the lower polling candidates to ask them to participate in these forums only to not give them the chance to actually participate. Dennis Kucinich was visibly annoyed by this and rightfully so.

There's no point in conducting a post-debate analysis if your "analysis" only consists of talking about two of the seven candidates involved. The debate finished at about 10:10 and CNN replayed it at 11:00. During the 50 minutes between the debate and its repeat, the analysts talked about Clinton, Obama, Clinton, Obama, and Clinton with an occasional mention of Edwards before returning to Clinton. Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, and Dennis Kucinich were not mentioned at all by any of the analysts even though some of them turned in solid debate performances. It is worth noting that two of CNN's political analysts include James Carville and David Gergen, both of whom have served with Bill Clinton. I cannot say for sure that these analysts are biased, but it certainly seemed that way based on who they talked about in their analyses. Perhaps including more voices in the post-debate analysis would help, although Campbell Brown, John Roberts, and Anderson Cooper also kept the discussion focused on Clinton and Obama.

There should not be any excuses for having production problems at these debates at this stage of the game. CNN's post-debate analysis was riddled with production and technical problems. When Anderson Cooper tried to cue video clips from the debate for the other analysts to comment on, there were several instances in which the videos either weren't ready or weren't available. Shouldn't CNN have its A-team in charge of putting on these debates? This led to lots of dead air and weak improvising that led to generic "I agree with Analyst X" comments.

There's no point in making television viewers wait 10 minutes while the candidates engage in a photo-op on stage. The opening introduction of the candidates was a nice touch, but the debate should have gotten started immediately after that. It was not necessary for the candidates to stand there while the crowd took pictures and shook their hands before the debate even started. How many viewers tuned out before the first question was even asked? It would be a better use of airtime for the public relations and logistical aspects of the debate to take place after the debate or before the network goes on the air.

There's no point in saying that questions are unscripted or are from average voters when they obviously aren't. How many average voters knew that today was Bill Richardson's birthday? Most political junkies probably didn't even know that! And if you're going to let an audience member ask a question, at least give that person a chance to work on their stage presence before gametime. One of the random questioners had great difficulty actually getting around to her question. I was worried that some of the candidates wouldn't be able to understand her because of her meandering and seeming to get lost in her own words.

There's no point in saying you are fair and impartial if the moderator is clearly more aggressive with some candidates than with others. Wolf Blitzer was much tougher on Barack Obama than he was on Hillary Clinton. After grilling Obama on driver's licenses for illegal immigrants and chastising him for not giving a simple yes or no answer, he allowed Clinton to skate by on the question with a simple "no" even though her position on this issue had changed repeatedly at the last debate in Philadelphia.

My analysis of the candidates' individual performances can be found here. As for CNN though, this was not their best night.

Update: I found this article by Ginger Marks of the National Ledger which agrees that this debate was poorly handled. To my pleasant surprise, The 7-10 was cited in the story.


Amare said...

I totally agree with your analysis of the debate. I was absolutely appalled, and wrote a similar post just a few moments ago on my own blog. Not a good showing for CNN. Nice post.

Silence Dogood said...

I anxiously await your full debate analysis, the most surprising thing I learned from this post you wrote is that apparently Wolf Blitzer was there the whole time. To watch it, you would have though he only showed up for that one moment with Obama you noted (and one other time), this was a VERY poor effort on CNN's and Blitzer's part. I thought the Obama knock on Clinton coming early was surprising and it was interesting to see him (usually noted by perfect congeniality) attempt to take off the gloves a little bit, esp. right out of the gate, which is actually what I think people were expecting in the last debate where he did not.

Schenck said...

Hey... first time at your blog, linked from a WaPo comment. I like your analysis; it's truthful and non-partisan. In reference to the "undecided voter" who stumbled over her question, could you here the whispering in the background? It seemed she was trying to remember something word-for-word, and whether or not this idea was hers or somebody else's deserves some investigative reporting in my humble opinion, especially considering the overall swing of the Jerry Springer audience - half Clinton supporters, half Kucinich supporters.

But I suppose you will address these issues in your full analysis.

Amare said...

Thanks for checking out my blog. I look forward to reading your in depth analysis on this debate, and I'll also add you to my list of blogs. I always enjoy an intelligent nonpartisan perspective!

Anthony Palmer said...


Thanks for dropping by. It's nice to know that great minds think alike. From what I've been reading on the web, A LOT of people were not impressed by CNN's handling of this debate. CNN used to set the gold standard for journalism and credibility. I wonder what happened?



The full debate analysis is posted now. As for Obama, he is capable of taking off the gloves, but he doesn't seem comfortable doing so and either 1) throws a lot of punches that don't hit their target or 2) opens himself up for a counterpunch. I think Clinton bested him when she said Obama's lack of toughness now suggests he isn't tough enough to beat the GOP next year.



Thanks for checking out The 7-10. I try to be non-partisan (I'm a registered independent), but it's hard for me to ignore common sense. I hope you'll drop by my blog again in the future and offer a few comments as you see fit. I'm always happy to bring in new readers because they help me learn a few things about politics and how sharp my own political antenna is. Much appreciated.