SAN DIEGO, Oct. 29, 2015 —Much is being said today about last night’s GOP debate, moderated by a CNBC panel whose biased, shameless, anti-Republican attacks were so obvious that any attempt to disguise them as legitimate questions ended up being about as subtle as the Trojan Horse with its hidden soldiers holding practice sword fights inside the wooden stallion while waiting to see whether the Trojans would be fooled into opening their gates to bring in the Greek gift.
Public disdain for the “objective news panel” has been spread all over Twitter.
Meanwhile, the Republicans are being complimented for finally having a night with fewer attacks upon each other and more pushback toward the questioners.
Although the counterattack seemed to form spontaneously, it was carried out with remarkable skill, almost as if the 10 candidates had a huddle before the debate, followed by some high-fives and a shout of, “OK, let’s get in there and give them hell!”
Lest we be too hard on CNBC with criticism that this was not a real debate, it might be time to keep in mind that, better journalists not withstanding, NONE of these news network debates have been real debates.
In a real debate, you limit the number of people, preferably to two. Ten people on stage may be an interesting time for sound bites with occasional digs, but it is hardly a debate.
And yet, limiting the number is only the beginning. Even when primaries are over and the two nominees square off, we never witness an authentic debate. Instead we are seeing glorified press conferences.In a real debate, each opponent gets an uninterrupted opening statement of a mutually agreed-upon length. This is followed by a time for rebuttal. Usually a cross-examination is included. That is the most telling part of the debate. Each candidate must answer to the other. If they respond with double-talk, hoping nobody will notice they did not answer the question, it becomes painfully obvious.
Words and phrases such as “bipartisanship” or “the American people” fail to whitewash a downright dodge. The cross examination is followed by closing statements. Sometimes questions from the audience are taken after the debate proper.
In a real debate, the victor wins on the consistency and accuracy of his/her points. It does not matter who had the most charisma. Charisma can be a factor, since one must not only make a case, but make it persuasively. Unfortunately, audiences can be sheep and charisma takes on a far too dominant role.
In George W. Bush’s first “debate” with John Kerry, Bush made some good points and Kerry sometimes said contradictory things. The conventional wisdom still gave the nod to Kerry. Why? Because throughout the debate, Bush had a “scowling” look on his face.
And everyone remembers the classic Kennedy/Nixon debate, the first time such a forum was televised. Radio audiences declared Nixon the winner. Television audiences gave the nod to Kennedy.
Those who heard the debate on the radio were mostly responding to the arguments alone because there was no facial expression to watch. Yet, even on radio, Nixon’s voice had the unfair advantage of sounding more authoritative and experienced than Kennedy’s.
On TV, however, people noticed Nixon sweating while Kennedy looked happy, calm and collected. Many also considered the youthful Kennedy to be just plain better looking than Nixon. But winning for good looks is a discussion for another day.
In a real debate, the moderator is little more than a referee. True moderators enforce rules which the two opponents agree to, making sure nobody goes over their allotted time and keeping one opponent from interrupting the other. In such a format, it simply does not matter what opinion the moderator holds or who the moderator is secretly rooting for. The moderator’s opinions are not embedded in the questions. Moderators do not set the tone for the debate. Neither do they declare who is right or wrong, as Candy Crowley did when President Obama tried to pretend he had called the Benghazi attack a terrorist attack right from the start.
Ironically, in Crowley’s case, there had been an unsuccessful preemptive strike to prevent that kind of referee tactic prior to the debate. Both presidential candidates made an attempt to moderate the moderator with a written agreement.
“The moderator will not ask follow-up questions or comment on either the questions asked by the audience or the answers of the candidates during the debate or otherwise intervene in the debate except to acknowledge the questioners from the audience or enforce the time limits, and invite candidate comments during the 2 minute response period” (memorandum of understanding section 7, part c, sub-part iv).
An interview with Politico offered some rather obvious clues that Crowley was not taking the agreement very seriously. “I’m not a fly on the wall… I’m going to react organically to what’s happening.”
Candy Crowley herself appeared on a CNN panel the night of that debate and explained that Romney was “right” inasmuch as Obama and his spokespeople still insisted for weeks that the incident was about a video.
“Right after that I did turn around and say, but you’re totally correct that they spent two weeks telling us this was about a tape and that that there was this riot outside the Benghazi consulate which there wasn’t. He was right in the main, I just think he picked the wrong word.”
Unfortunately, most people will never see her post-debate elaboration. Instead, they remember a feisty, confrontational moment where the moderator acted as a referee. Although Crowley also offered a qualifying statement during the critical debate moment, she said it incorrectly. With the CNN panel, Crowley was not actually repeating what she said. She repeated what she thought she said. The actual words were, “He — he did call it an act of terror. It did as well take — it did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea there being a riot out there about this tape to come out. You are correct about that.”
Since then, Crowley has explained herself even further. On Oct. 17, 2012, she told CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, “I wasn’t trying to get them to clap, I was trying to sort of – you know, bring some kind of clarity to the conversation.”
Thanks for the explanation, Candy, but the real problem was assuming the subject was yours to steer in the first place. You couldn’t have picked a finer moment to “move along.” Two candidates for president were relaying opposite information. One was lying. One was telling the truth. The audience had a right to see the conversation to fruition without your pulling the plug.
But Candy was certainly correct about one thing. She was not a fly on the wall after all. If only she had been, the audience might have seen a real debate with an objective moderator who is there to watch the time, keep the candidates from interrupting each other and keep her opinions to herself. Instead, we witnessed a quiz show where President Obama won the grand prize and Mitt Romney was awarded some lovely parting gifts.
More of this nonsense lies ahead unless we seize upon the utter contempt for last night’s abysmal performance by CNBC and turn it into an advantage. That advantage is best defined as scrapping the current paradigm of television debates and reintroducing the idea of genuine debates.
The next debate will be on Fox Business Channel. While the GOP candidates may be anticipating a friendlier experience by assuming that Neil Cavuto will pitch softballs, alas, that will not be a real debate either.
This is Bob Siegel, making the obvious, obvious.
Bob Siegel is a weekend radio talk show host on KCBQ and a columnist. Details of his show can be found at www.bobsiegel.net