As soon as last Thursday’s 128-minute Democratic presidential debate concluded, CNN called on two analysts—part of what the cable channel has dubiously and incessantly branded “the best political team on television”—to interpret what had just transpired for the several million viewers at home.
Not surprisingly, James Carville, one of Bill and Hillary’s closest friends, and David Gergen, a Clinton (and other) White House alum, agreed that it had been a winning night for Hillary Clinton. Apparently, Harry and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason weren’t available.
The use of Mr. Carville, and to a lesser extent Mr. Gergen, provoked some criticism, with watchdogs griping that CNN didn’t properly disclose its conflicts. But disclosure isn’t really the issue. The question is why, given the endless supply of eager political pundits who are unaffiliated with the Clintons and every other campaign, CNN ever offered such a prominent spot to Mr. Carville and Mr. Gergen in the first place.
Not that it was the only insult to viewers last Thursday.
Once the gold standard for all-news television, the Cable News Network used the night to make a convincing argument that it should never again be entrusted with a presidential debate.
The network’s journalistic crimes are legion, starting with how the debate—which, at least in theory, is supposed to serve as a public service to voters—was promoted. In full-page ads, CNN cast it as pure sport, a boxing match in which “the gloves will come off.” Really? How would CNN know ahead of time that that this would be a contentious forum, especially after most of the previous debates had been tame, unless they were planning to force conflict?
There was also the warm-up act, a full-hour of Lou Dobbs fulminating against illegal immigrants and reading letters from adoring and sycophantic viewers, all presented by CNN as some sort of debate preview. This is the same Mr. Dobbs who has done little to quell talk that he himself wants to run for President next year. (Not that this came up on CNN, either.)
It got worse when it was time for the actual debate. First, CNN persisted with the prize-fighting motif, with moderator Wolf Blitzer playing the Michael Buffer role and calling the candidates to the stage individually, like boxers entering the ring. Then Mr. Blitzer introduced Campbell Brown, John Roberts, and Suzanne Malveaux, fellow CNN personalities who would join in the questioning.
“They are part of the very best political team,” he informed viewers.
As the candidates were fitted with their microphones—shouldn’t that have been done backstage?—Mr. Blitzer awkwardly handed off to analyst Gloria Borger, who stuck with the boxing imagery as she told viewers which candidates could be expected to come out “swinging” in the public policy forum they were about to watch.
If CNN was intent on giving America a fight, it could have at least tried to put on a fair one.
But the audience at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas was slanted heavily in favor of New York’s junior senator. One of the first questions of the night, from Mr. Blitzer, sought to incite a tangle between Barack Obama and Mrs. Clinton. Mrs. Clinton used her turn to criticize Mr. Obama’s health care plan, but when Mr. Obama began, loud shouts from the audience distracted him and viewers at home.
So pro-Clinton was the crowd that Mrs. Clinton needed only to pause for a beat during an answer and the audience would fill the vacuum with raucous cheers. Meanwhile, when Mr. Obama and John Edwards sought to engage Mrs. Clinton, they were shouted down.
Conspiracy theorists will say that CNN had packed the crowd for its old friend. But the audience imbalance, like the inclusion of Mr. Carville and Mr. Gergen, was more an indictment of CNN’s incompetence. The network farmed out the distribution of tickets without insisting on any kind of balance. The resulting Clinton rah-rahing was both distracting and misleading to viewers.
Similar incompetence was at work in the framing of questions. Time and again, candidates were presented with simplistic hypothetical scenarios and told to pick one side. They were invariably presented false choices—human rights or national security?—but if they failed to provide direct answers, they risked looking like typically evasive politicians.
And nothing but incompetence can explain why CNN decided to end on a “cute” question, prodding a UNLV student—who had hoped to quiz the candidates on the Yucca Mountain issue—to inquire if Mrs. Clinton preferred diamonds or pearls.
Follow Steve Kornacki via RSS.