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?)