In the opening Republican primary debate of the 2016 presidential election cycle, the moderator, Fox News anchor Bret Baier, asked the assembled candidates to participate in a yes-or-no exercise. “Gentlemen, we know how much you love hand-raising questions,” said Baier. “So we promise this is the only one tonight. The only one. Is there anyone on stage — and can I see hands — who is unwilling tonight to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican Party and pledge to not run an independent campaign against that person?”
Donald Trump raised his hand.
That was news.
Also news: Late last month, Democratic candidates at the Miami debates were asked by moderators from NBC News whether they would “provide [health] coverage for undocumented immigrants.” The result graced the front cover of the New York Post, with a bit of spin attached:
The image of Democratic hopefuls mock-voting in favor of such a policy has gotten a great deal of rotation on Fox News and other precincts denouncing the leftward drift of the party during this primary season. The New York Times called this onstage consensus a “striking departure from the Obama administration, which explicitly excluded undocumented immigrants from being able to buy into public programs.”
Well, the candidates need not worry about any hands-in-the-air photos stemming from the two nights of debate in Detroit on July 30 and 31. That’s because the event’s host network, CNN, issued a set of rules for the events:
Colored lights will be used to help the candidates manage their remaining response times: 15 seconds = yellow; 5 seconds = flashing red; no time remaining = solid red.
A candidate attacked by name by another candidate will be given 30 seconds to respond.
There will be no show of hands or one-word, down-the-line questions.
A candidate who consistently interrupts will have his or her time reduced.
Questions posed by the moderators will appear on the bottom of the screen for television viewers.
(Bolding added to highlight the rule on one-word questions.)
Even if CNN decided that it doesn’t like the theater of such questions; even if CNN decided that it doesn’t want its debates to make headlines; even if CNN decided that it didn’t want to put the candidates on the spot regarding contemporary controversies; even if CNN decided that it didn’t want good ratings; even if CNN decided that, somehow, these sorts of questions were journalistically corrupt, why would it broadcast this limitation in a public release?
Why would it crimp its moderators — Dana Bash, Don Lemon and Jake Tapper — by plucking a wrench from their toolboxes?
CNN, like all its competitors in TV news, participates in unseemly partnerships when they lock down debates. Rights to these ratings bonanzas are secured through the Democratic and Republican national committees. Which is to say, the TV providers must negotiate with the people they cover while at the same time preserving journalistic independence and neutrality. It’s a nearly impossible straddling maneuver.
Nor is the conflict of interest a one-time affair: There will be as many as 12 Democratic debate nights, meaning that broadcasters who do the best job of pleasing party officials have the best shot at multiple partnerships. CNN has a strong reputation in the debate-hosting industry, having pulled off slate of debates in the 2016 cycle that were well received by both Democrats and Republicans.
"Why in the world are news organizations involved with increasing the production values of political events?” asked Republican political consultant Stuart Stevens in a recent op-ed for The Post.
So did this unfortunate dynamic play a role in CNN disarming its own moderators? Here are the questions that the Erik Wemple Blog posed to CNN: “Was that the idea of CNN or of the candidates/DNC? Did anyone other than CNN suggest this restriction? Why limit the sorts of questions that your moderators may ask? Aren’t yes-or-no questions sometimes critical for journalism?”
A CNN spokeswoman answered, “It was a decision made by CNN.” As to whether that decision was influenced by the Democratic National Committee or Democratic presidential campaigns, a company source said it was reached “with zero input or pressure from anyone.”
We also asked the same question of the DNC: Did it have any discussions with CNN about this matter? No on-the-record response has emerged.
Questions seeking a show of hands or one-word answers, to be sure, come off as cheesy stunts made for cable news. They also have a knack of focusing a debate and pushing blathering politicians off their talking points. Which of you would use military force against Iran — yes or no? Which of you would sign such-and-such a bill? The Democratic candidates prepping for Detroit should feel relieved that they won’t have to contend with any such queries.