“The night belongs to the people in this room, and the people across the country,” Anderson Cooper said at the beginning of Sunday night’s debate. Cooper was referring not to himself or his co-moderator, Martha Raddatz of ABC, but rather to the undecided voters Gallup had chosen for its audience, and to the American people in general, both those who have ushered in this gruesome spectacle of an election and those who have recoiled from it. Cooper and Raddatz did a reasonably good job of trying to contain the two candidates, one of whom is a wild and dangerous ogre who speaks in whorls of unfathomable nonsense. But they still couldn’t keep a lid on the bile that continues to emanate from campaign 2016.
The so-called town hall debate is always the trickiest one to host, because while the moderators want to direct the conversation in particular ways, they also have to cede the floor to inane questions from “average” Americans who for some reason haven’t made up their minds after an already endless election cycle. Sunday night wasn’t much different. Despite Trump’s incessant beefing about unfair treatment, Raddatz and Cooper managed to ensure that the candidates got equal time. (CNN, pre-empting any complaints, immediately put up a graphic after the debate showing that Trump had actually spoken slightly more than Clinton.)
The questions from the hall were dull but rarely offensive. When Raddatz and Cooper piped up with their own questions, they were also adequate, whether regarding Syria or Obamacare or Trump’s disgusting behavior. When Trump seemed to initially shrug off the chance to fully address the video released Friday in which he boasted of sexual abuse, Cooper helpfully piped up: “You bragged about sexually assaulting women. Do you understand that?” After a pathetically slow start to this election season, Cooper has become a much tougher questioner of Trump, which is probably why the candidate has stopped appearing on his CNN show.
Raddatz also had some fine moments and generally did her best to control the debate. Her question on Syria and Russia, which essentially consisted of reading aloud to Trump his running mate’s comments on facing down Vladimir Putin, forced the most shocking answer of the night, in which Trump threw his candidate under the campaign bus. (Reading someone’s words is often very effective. Cooper should have done the same when Trump denied tweeting about a sex tape.)
The most jarring or inspirational part of the evening, depending on your point of view, occurred during one of Trump’s many nonsensical answers, this one on Iraq. After lodging his usual complaint that the American government was giving too much warning to ISIS before attacking it, Raddatz piped up to say that there were reasons the government might do so. This “correction” was cheered by people on social media because it represented a response to the misrepresentations that Trump constantly spouts. But it wasn’t really her place to say this. Trump was not making a factual statement, just offering a deranged opinion. And considering that Trump uttered a number of other flat-out lies that went uncorrected or uncommented upon by the moderators—the two most blatant of which were surely his claimed opposition to the Iraq war and his smear that unnamed Muslims were aware of bombs lying around the San Bernardino shooters’ apartment—it seemed especially odd that she chose this moment to take a stand. (The Iraq and San Bernardino lies are so common that Raddatz and Cooper must have been prepared for them.)
On the whole, however, Raddatz and Cooper’s performance was perfectly satisfactory. After a long, hard second half of 2015 in which the press struggled to handle the rise of Trump (with Cooper’s CNN a prime culprit), the media, generally speaking, has shone of late. The major print newspapers, and even cable news stars such as Jake Tapper, have risen to the challenge that Trump poses to basic political and democratic norms. Lester Holt’s moderating job during the first debate was excellent; Sunday night’s, in a more difficult forum, was also laudable.
And yet, no moderator or news institution is going to be able to civilize or manage the 2016 campaign. The press didn’t drive us into this ditch, even if it iced up the road. And the press won’t rescue us, either. Only the voters can do that.