Spoiling for a Fight

NYT lets CNN off the hook in debate story

You can tell that the piece in today’s Business section of The New York Times, headlined “Even as the Candidates Make Nice, the TV Crew Hopes for a Fight,” wanted to do the right thing—call CNN and the rest of the broadcast news folks out for their embarrassing effort to provoke personal attacks during the debates.

But it misses the mark, allowing Jonathan Klein, CNN’s president, and David Bohrman, its D.C. bureau chief, to frame the issue as a noble struggle by the journalists to knock the candidates off their stump speeches and elicit “substantive disagreements.”

Sounds good, but anyone who has witnessed Wolf Blitzer and the other moderators in action knows that what the networks actually want is a cat fight. On more than one occasion in last Thursday’s Democrat debate in Los Angeles, for example, Blitzer tried, without much success, to move the conversation in a baser direction, with comments such as, “Senator Clinton, that’s a clear swipe at you.”

Who can blame them, really? TV news competes in an infotainment arena dominated by whomever shouts the loudest, and in which shame and schadenfreude are what command the viewers.

But it’s a false dichotomy to suggest that the two choices we have in a debate are either stump speech or nasty argument. As moderators, why not steer toward an honest, civil discussion of ideas and policies? There will be differences between the candidates, sure, but those should be approached as educational moments, not openings to manufacture fireworks. Too boring? Only if you don’t really care about the hard work of democracy. If CNN feels it has no choice but to surrender to the popular entertainment culture, it shouldn’t be allowed to portray that surrender as a pursuit of journalism’s public-service mission.

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Brent Cunningham is CJR’s managing editor.