I’ve seen debates on TV before, of course, and attended them from journalists’ pens and spin rooms. But sitting in the audience of CNN’s November 15 Democratic presidential debate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, focused my mind on the egregious manner in which our media dumb down the process by which we pick our Presidents.

It was less a debate than a two-hour advertisement; not only did viewers see CNN = Politics graphics everywhere but unbeknownst to the television audience a network producer ran around the stage, ginning up the crowd like a high school cheerleader. (This backfired when a group of rowdies–angered by the inanity of the questions–shouted down Wolf Blitzer and had to be removed from the auditorium.)

From the start it was obvious that Blitzer & Co. had little interest in illuminating the candidates’ positions on actual issues; they sought merely to create controversy. The first part of the debate was given over to attacks on, and counterattacks from, Hillary Clinton–a surefire newsmaker that left the other candidates twiddling their thumbs. Next Blitzer went down the line, demanding to know whether the candidates supported driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, apparently unaware that licenses are the province of governors and state legislators, not Presidents. When Barack Obama tried to outline his overall approach to immigration in response, Blitzer repeatedly cut him off. (“Is that a yes or a no?” was a typical Blitzer interruption.)

Blitzer also demanded an up-or-down answer from members of the panel on the question of merit pay for teachers, another issue for which the Constitution gives the President no role whatsoever. What’s more, Blitzer’s reductive formulation–“What if there’s an excellent teacher in that team and a crummy teacher?”–failed to define who would make the decision, what criteria would be used and how they might be implemented. This turned out to be the moderator’s modus operandi. Discussing the future of Pakistan, for instance, Blitzer reduced the question to the purely theoretical and profoundly misleading “Is human rights more important than American national security?”–as if the two were somehow contradictory by definition and either answer might plot out a plan in Pakistan.

As is so often the case in MSM election coverage, CNN’s hectoring of the Democratic candidates reflected an unconscious internalization of Republican Party talking points. As Michael Kinsley pointed out during the 2004 Democratic convention, “It’s true enough that this is a moment when the Democrats are called upon to reject extreme liberalism (whatever that might be) and to embrace moderation. But that is only because every moment is such a moment.” He termed this meme “one of the very safest in all of punditry,” which, as the old song goes, is really saying something. So we heard Blitzer robotically repeating, “The teachers’ union, very powerful–teachers’ unions, very powerful” before inquiring of Dennis Kucinich, “Are there any issues with unions–teachers’ unions, or other unions for that matter–with which you disagree?” (Leave aside the fact that Blitzer apparently believes that all unions agree with one another on everything; are Republican candidates routinely asked to disassociate themselves from conservative Christians or the Fortune 500?)

The same syndrome was evident when, after a woman in the audience posed a question about what qualities the candidates would seek in a Supreme Court Justice, Blitzer and Suzanne Malveaux reinterpreted her question to restrict its scope to whether each would “require” judges “to support abortion rights.” Of course, the questioner might have been interested in FISA, rendition, torture or the Bush Administration’s multipronged assault on our constitutional rights, but where’s the buzz factor there? Not only did CNN’s anchors deliberately distort the woman’s question; they replaced it with one posed within a hostile linguistic framework. Democrats, as we are all aware, speak of the issue as one of “reproductive freedom,” “choice” or, as it is defined in Roe v. Wade, Americans’ “right to privacy.” The way Blitzer rephrased Malveaux’s original distortion–demanding to know whether the Democrats would “insist” that judicial nominees “support abortion”–he might as well have been addressing a right-to-life rally.

We saw a similar dynamic every time voters were invited to ask a question: their concerns were ignored as Blitzer and Malveaux twisted their inquiries into “gotcha” traps. When an Arab-American asked an impassioned question about airport racial profiling, Malveaux used his story to try to trip up John Edwards. “You obviously voted for the Patriot Act, which gives the government extended powers of surveillance,” she explained. “What do you say to people like Mr. Khan, who says he’s been abused by that power?” Yet Mr. Khan never mentioned the Patriot Act, which, as Joe Biden finally noted, has nothing to do with racial profiling.

The night’s final absurdity came at the evening’s close, when a UNLV student was given the microphone and asked Hillary Clinton whether she preferred diamonds or pearls. Sitting in the audience, I was among those who thought her idiotic inquiry shamed both herself and her university. Yet it turns out I was being unfair. As she later explained on her MySpace page, she had been planning to ask a question about nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain, but at the last minute she was instructed by a CNN producer to switch her question to diamonds and pearls, which she had submitted in advance when asked by the network to provide questions of a “lighthearted/fun” nature. The folks at CNN apparently considered this inquiry to be such a stroke of genius they chose it as their lead story for the website the following day, under the headline Diamonds or pearls: Clinton wants both.

Really, Democrats, there’s gotta be a better way.