tv reporter

Debates, not issues, are the newsmakers

Ever notice that no matter how much news is made among the candidates this primary season, the debate itself tends to take center stage?

These men and one woman are vying to become leader of the free world, and the headline last week was that CNN was duped by a Clinton plant at the GOP-YouTube debate. CNN already had gotten into trouble in November when it failed to disclose that analyst James Carville was a financial supporter of the Clinton campaign.

Last week, the Democratic National Committee canceled a debate planned for Los Angeles to be moderated by "CBS Evening News" anchor Katie Couric. Although it was a casualty of the writers strike, the cancellation robbed CBS of the chance to get in on the debates that have been put on by all of its rivals.

To a lesser extent, MSNBC and Fox News Channel also have been the subject of debate-related stories that have nothing to do with the issues. MSNBC's Tim Russert was criticized for his questioning of Clinton in the Oct. 30 debate, and Fox News Channel had its own scrap this year with the Democratic candidates when all it wanted to do was sponsor a debate.

"For almost all of these things, the postdebate stories have been dominated by sidebars," says Tobe Berkowitz, dean of Boston University's College of Communication.

CNN wanted to talk about its record ratings for its Democratic debate Nov. 15 in Las Vegas and its YouTube debate Wednesday. But it was hard to crow when it spent so much time on the defensive.

Berkowitz says he hasn't been impressed with CNN's debate telecasts, starting with bringing the candidates onstage like what he calls a game-show format.

"It's been show business. It's been a disservice — how many gimmicks we can pile into what should be the serious business of democracy," he says.

CNN thinks that with the exception of the controversy over the question about gays in the military, the debates were successful. CNN says that if it had known that the questioner was linked to the Clinton campaign, they would have used another question on the same topic.

If there's one thing to take out of the recent debate performances on CNN, Fox and MSNBC, it is that even though the debate season started in the spring, the ratings aren't showing "debate fatigue." Fox News and MSNBC have had strong debate ratings along with CNN's records. And ABC is doing back-to-back primary debates in primetime Jan. 5, on the eve of the New Hampshire primary.

"I think people have now realized that they have to make up their own mind and they have to vote, in about 30 days for some people," says David Bohrman, CNN's Washington bureau chief, who executive produced the YouTube debates. "They have to decide now. It's been a spectator sport for some viewers, but now … they're watching with a different eye."

Bohrman says that CNN and YouTube have heard that the Commission on Presidential Debates — which organizes the ones between the eventual nominees in the run-up to Election Day — is interested in talking about a YouTube component to their debates.

"I hope there would be something in the general election that has input from real people," Bohrman says. "I don't think there will ever be a presidential cycle where there isn't a participatory component to the debates."