Rebellious Networks Split Debate Screen

The day after the first Presidential debate of 2004, David Borhman, the executive producer of CNN’s campaign coverage, was still growling over the request by the Presidential campaigns that he not broadcast images of the candidates’ reactions to what the other was saying.

“They were trying to avoid the ‘looking at the watch,’ ‘the sigh,’ but it’s not their event to televise,” he said. “And guess what? They can buy time on television and control it however they want, but if they’re going to stand up and duke it out and debate each other to be President, the American news networks, the American television media, are going to cover that as they see appropriate. And whether it’s CNN or Fox or the news networks, we all did very much the same thing last night.”

“The campaigns try to control the networks; the networks rebelled,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a Presidential-debate expert at the Annenberg School for Communication and co-author of Presidential Debates: The Challenge of Creating an Informed Electorate. “That’s new. That’s brand new.”

It wasn’t the use of a cutaway shot in a Presidential debate that was new. But it was rebellious. Through Nixon-Kennedy, Ford-Carter, Reagan-Carter, Reagan-Mondale, Bush-Dukakis, Bush-Clinton, Dole-Clinton, Bush-Gore, everybody had followed the rules, more or less. But this was rule-by-control-booth. And of all the campaign requests the TV networks decided to ignore—and they abided by other proscribed details, including limited camera angles and the inclusion of the timing lights in the frame shot—the ability to show reactions was the one that may have defined the perception of the debate.

Network executives said they never actually received copies of the contract, and were not contacted to sign anything formally. They were simply expected to follow some legalese posted on the Web sites of the campaigns under the headline. Both CBS News and NBC News were known to have had meetings discussing the memo. In the end, the way the networks responded was not directly to the Commission on Presidential Debates, or to the campaigns themselves, but through the print press and broadcast stories of their own.

“I don’t think anybody came out to make a statement,” said Marcy McGinnis, the senior vice president of news at CBS News. “People called up the version of me at NBC and ABC and said, ‘Are you going to abide by this?’ And we said no. The group of us didn’t make a group statement. It only came out by the print reporters asking us. We did pieces about it to show the American people what the campaigns were trying to do.

“It’s like they don’t trust the American people to watch and listen and make their own decisions based on it,” she added.

Earlier that week, on Monday, Sept. 27, the Bush and Kerry campaigns had attempted to issue the TV networks a production directive, inserting a rule into their own debate agreement that no cutaways be allowed. The Commission on Presidential Debates agreed to uphold the rules, but the networks collectively refused to acknowledge the so-called “memorandum of understanding.” And by going with the split screen—one candidate jabbing verbally, the other parrying visually—TV news coughed up the debate souvenir that will be the 2004 version of Richard Nixon’s Lazy-Shave debacle: George W. Bush’s scowling smirk, the game face that he must have thought looked Presidential and decisive, but to the country looked petulant, impatient, spoiled.

Around the dial, TV news executives were proud of their open cameras.

“When we saw that, our reaction was, We’re not going to allow anyone to dictate how we cover a news event,” said Thom Bird, the executive producer for Fox News’ debate coverage, who was in the control room during the debate. “We just went forward with that belief. If they were going to enforce that, they weren’t going to get any coverage.” Mr. Borhman said they even tried to keep the timing light on each of the candidate’s podium on the periphery of the screen, despite requests to keep it front and center. “They tried as hard as they could to force the timing light into the shot,” he said. “You didn’t really see them. They were sort of there on the desk. The committee actually provided a feed of the timing light, which none of us used.”

It was a little ironic, the pride, considering the press’ acquiescence on just about every other limitation on its coverage over the last four years. After the Pentagon-approved embedding in the war in Iraq, the tight-reined White House press conferences, the restricted Presidential campaigns, the convention super-productions—this amounted to a revolutionary coup. And it came just 33 days before the election.

When the debate began, the first network to actually switch to a split screen was ABC News, which showed a three-way of Mr. Kerry, Mr. Bush and moderator Jim Lehrer as Mr. Kerry thanked the moderator and welcomed Florida to the debate. Soon after, they showed a two-way split when Mr. Kerry listed the ways he could fight a better war on terrorism than Mr. Bush. Mr. Bush looked blankly into the audience and then straightened his tie. At 9:08 p.m., the rest of the networks switched to a split screen when Mr. Lehrer asked Mr. Bush if he thought electing Mr. Kerry would bring another terrorist attack. Mr. Kerry, seen on the left, was seen passively scribbling notes.

The pool setup was such that there were only five shots available to the networks from the feed, which that night was managed by Fox News Channel. They included isolated shots Mr. Bush, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lehrer; a wide shot of the entire stage; and an alternate angle, a “switch feed,” directed by the pool director, Fox News’ Steve Hirsch, who chose from between eight or nine available camera angles.

CNN’s Mr. Borhman said reaction shots were not part of Mr. Hirsch’s director’s cut.

“I waited for the first part of the questions,” he said. “Once it became clear that the pool was not intercutting reaction shots, I told our director to go into the split screen.”

Separately, Mr. Bird, at Fox News, oversaw how the pool feed was produced for Fox’s own broadcast.

“We’re the eyes and ears for the viewer,” said Mr. Bird. “And we’re looking at all the shots, and we’re trying to figure out what is going to tell the story better. If you’re just taking the line cut, you’re not seeing what the other candidate is doing. The best way to do that that night is when you see someone get uncomfortable on the other side of the stage, you want to show that. It’s part of the event. You’re there, you’re showing it. You’re not editing out.

“Everyone on that stage is human,” he said. “If they sit there poker-faced all night, maybe that’s part of the story, too.”

But poker faces weren’t the story. And one network executive wondered how Mr. Bush’s campaign guru Karl Rove could have allowed his candidate to emote the way he did, knowing the cameras were always on. “How stupid are they not to tell their stupid candidate not to make faces?” said the executive, who wished to remain anonymous. In the same breath, the TV person said Mr. Bush’s reactions proved the effectiveness of the split screen. “Isn’t that the whole point? Isn’t that reality? Even knowing the camera was on, he still did it.”

That night, Democratic operative Howard Wolfson produced and disseminated a 51-second montage of Mr. Bush’s reactions over the Web. The images, set to jaunty jazz music, rotated through the press at lightning speed, including NBC’s Meet the Press, and both Time and Newsweek political writers, Joe Klein and Jonathan Alter, respectively, used images of Mr. Bush’s face in their columns.

The net effect was that Mr. Rove spent the next few days trying to dismantle “The Grimace” with one press outing after another, propping Mr. Bush back up as strong, forthright and Presidential rather than a frustrated, snippy and defensive commander in chief.

The format of the debate had been haggled over by Vernon Jordan and Jim Baker, the lawyers for both the Kerry and Bush campaigns, who issued a joint 32-page “memorandum of understanding,” signed on Sept. 20 and released on Monday, Sept. 27, four days before the Presidential debate in Coral Gables, Fla. In it, the campaigns insisted, in Section 9, Subsection V, that “when a candidate is speaking, either in answering a question or making his closing statement, TV coverage will be limited to the candidate speaking. There will be no TV cut-aways to any candidate who is not responding to a question while another candidate is answering a question or to a candidate who is not giving a closing statement while another candidate is doing so.”

The rule was an echo of the 1994 debate between Mr. Bush and then–Texas Governor Ann Richards, in which Mr. Bush had made a similar request, which was then granted. Mark Wallace, Mr. Bush’s deputy campaign manager, told The Los Angeles Times on Sept. 29, “I don’t think there’s any desire for anyone to control content in any way,” but the networks should “focus on what’s important to the American people.”

Of course, it was exactly the desire to control the debate and to keep the President in a predictable frame that inspired the rule. And the signatories of the memorandum, President Bush’s campaign manager Kenneth B. Mehlman and Senator Kerry’s campaign manager Mary E. Cahill, had clearly hoped the networks would go along with it.

But primarily, it was a request pushed by Mr. Bush’s campaign.

“I think there was an expectation that they would abide [by the rule] and it was probably a foolish one,” said a Bush campaign advisor, who declined to be named.

By the time the debate day arrived, of course, Mr. Bush knew that the cameras would be on him. “The President knew and I said to people very, very, very close to him—and she was aware of this—the camera is always on,” he said, hinting that the person was Karen Hughes. “It’s just a fact. We’ve got a pool feed where the camera was on and Bush was getting made up and getting his hair combed and the BBC ran it. We had experience with that. I think it was more of a hope and an aspiration than an expectation.”

The memo carried an oblique threat to the networks whose anchors had been chosen to moderate, stating that should the moderators refuse to sign, the campaigns could “agree upon and select a different individual to moderate that debate.”

Bob Schieffer, the host of CBS News’ Face the Nation and the official moderator of the Oct. 13 debate, told USA Today on Sept. 23 that he had “no problem” with the rules and was willing to sign the documents—as long as the commission also agreed to sign them. “We asked Bob not to sign it,” said Ms. McGinnis, at CBS News. “But we also said that if he had signed it, before we had said it, we would have argued that he was signing the moderator part. Bob Schieffer is not authorized to say anything about cameras.”

Ultimately, the commission declined to sign the memo, too, but a message issued on its Web site Friday, Sept. 24, said “the debate format rules will be enforced as stated in the Sept. 20 memorandum.”

But Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., a co-chairman of the commission, told The New York Times on Tuesday, Sept. 28, “There are certain things that are clearly beyond our control … we don’t control the feed so we don’t know what the networks are going to show; that’s not within our purview.”

In that same article, the first TV network to publicly dismiss the rule was a spokesman for the Fox News Channel, who declared that “because of journalistic standards, we’re not going to follow outside restrictions.”