CNN Was Ill-Equipped for This

During the debate it hosted on Tuesday night, the news network made its best effort to convert discussions of policy into the thing it knows best: punditry.

There is a revealing absurdity to CNN’s repeated attempts to reduce a 10-person event to a series of highly targeted duels. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters)

“Tonight: a fight for the heart of the party. Senator Bernie Sanders, determined to seize his second chance at the nomination … going head-to-head with Senator Elizabeth Warren. Longtime friends fighting for the same cause—and the same voters.”

That was the introduction to the compilation video CNN aired on Tuesday evening, just before the network’s Democratic primary debate started. The video was a trailer for reality, essentially, its story of battles to come told in a giddy, in-a-world tone. It included lightning-round bios of the 10 participating candidates. And shots of some of those candidates pumping their fists in the air. And a jubilant musical score. And, at one climactic moment, a video of an American flag, swaying poetically in the wind.

The melodrama, it would turn out, was fitting. Throughout the debate, the first of a two-night doubleheader set at Detroit’s Fox Theatre, the event’s moderators—Jake Tapper, Dana Bash, and Don Lemon—did what the network’s trailer suggested they would: They asked questions that might turn this fight for the heart of the party into a plain old fight.

One of their questions: “Senator Warren, you make it a point to say you’re a capitalist. Is that your way of saying you’re a safer choice than Senator Sanders?” Another: “Congressman Ryan, are Senator Sanders’s proposals going to incentivize undocumented immigrants to come into the country illegally?” Another: “Congressman O’Rourke, you live near the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso and disagree with Mayor Buttigieg on decriminalizing the border crossings. Please respond.” The chyrons gave away the game: “QUESTION: Congressman Delaney, do you think Sen. Warren’s wealth tax is a fair way to fund child care and education?” Here was another: “QUESTION: Sen. Klobuchar, who are you referring to when you say candidates are making promises just to get elected?”

Debates are competitions, yes. They are spectacles, certainly. And the Democrats have noteworthy differences in their policy positions and their political orientations. But there is a revealing absurdity to CNN’s repeated attempts to reduce a 10-person event to a series of highly targeted duels. The moderators might have asked the candidates about health care, and immigration, and gun safety, and racial inequality, and climate change, but mostly they asked the candidates about one another. The result was cyclical, and cynical: Here were matters of life and death, framed as fodder for manufactured melees.

As the debate wore on, candidates’ individual discussions of policy proposals were often cut short (“Your time is up!” was a common refrain among the moderators); petty squabbles, however, proved less beholden to the rigid rules of the clock. “I want to bring in Governor Hickenlooper,” Tapper said at one point. “I’d like to hear what you say about Senator Warren’s suggestion that those onstage not in favor of Medicare for All lack the will to fight for it.”

It was not a question so much as an invitation—to battle, to squabble, to make the kind of news that is full of sound bites. Maybe even to deliver the sort of electric interpersonal exchange that NBC had hosted last month between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden. CNN had promised the drama, and it spent the evening trying to deliver. It persisted even when the candidates themselves resisted the words of the fight song. “How do you respond to the criticism from Senator Warren that you’re not willing to fight for Medicare for All?” Marianne Williamson was asked, to which she responded, “I don’t know if Senator Warren said that about me specifically.” Amy Klobuchar, when asked, “Who on this stage is making promises just to get elected?,” refused to name names.

No matter. A few moments after the debate’s conclusion, Anderson Cooper, who led CNN’s analysis of the event, asked the network’s chief national correspondent, John King, that classic question of postgame punditry: “Who stood out to you?”

“Well, what stood out to me is I think the most important,” King replied. “The ideological and generational fight in the Democratic Party is alive and well and feisty.”

Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN Worldwide, talks often about his love of sports, and has discussed the ways CNN has incorporated the particular logic of ESPN into its coverage of electoral politics. (Zucker, discussing—defending—CNN’s treatment of the 2016 presidential campaign: “The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way.”)

Today, as it becomes clear how few of the previous election’s lessons have been learned in time for the one that rapidly approaches, there is an aptness to the idea that CNN would, once again, take refuge in the easy symmetries of an athletic competition. And there is a thudding inevitability to the notion that the network would find new ways to insist that politics is, above all, a sporting event: high in drama, low in stakes.

Which is also to say that it was entirely predictable that CNN’s version of the primary debates would carry shades of ESPN. The moderators, with their emphasis on timekeeping and scorekeeping and the rigid rules of the game, often played the role of referees. The mini-documentary that CNN producers created to inform viewers about the candidates they’d be watching in this fight for the heart of the party wasn’t merely an ad for the show to come; it was also reminiscent of those get-to-know-an-athlete packages you might see while watching the Olympics.

CNN’s drawing of debate-night slots, aired live (and live-blogged, and discussed) on the network earlier in the month, whiffed of the NBA draft. After Tuesday’s appointed group of presidential hopefuls strode onto the debate stage, one by one, a military honor guard marched down the theater’s aisle. A choir performed a rendition of the national anthem. Had the Fox been an open-air venue, the whole thing might have culminated in a flyover from the Blue Angels.

“It certainly lived up to the billing in many ways,” Anderson Cooper said, summing up the evening’s event. “We saw candidates clashing onstage, sometimes sharply, on policy.” All of that, he added, “without resorting to name-calling at all.”

It was not for lack of trying.