How CNN Botched Both Democratic Debates

Tuesday: bad questions. Wednesday: bad follow-ups.

DETROIT, MICHIGAN - JULY 31: CNN moderator Jake Tapper speaks to the crowd attending the Democratic Presidential Debate at the Fox Theatre July 31, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. 20 Democratic presidential candidates were split into two groups of 10 to take part in the debate sponsored by CNN held over two nights at Detroit’s Fox Theatre.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
CNN moderator Jake Tapper Scott Olson/Getty Images

It took only two minutes to know that the second night of the Democratic debates on CNN would be very annoying. “Tonight!” a gravelly voiced narrator intoned over a video promo that introduced each candidate as though they were characters in some guilty-pleasure reality TV show. “A critical rematch! Former Vice President Joe Biden, aiming to reclaim his momentum. Sen. Kamala Harris: not backing down after clashing with Biden over race.” The presentation would have been a good fit for WrestleMania. Presidential politics: This time, it’s personal!

The implication was clear: CNN expected the candidates to rumble. On Wednesday night, the network got what it wanted. The debate was a contentious one—though not as feisty as Tuesday’s debate, largely thanks to the absence of the perpetually snippy John Delaney—with Biden going after Harris and basically everyone else onstage going after Biden. Although the moderators were less aggressive about cutting candidates off, as they had mercilessly the night before, Dana Bash, Don Lemon, and Jake Tapper largely took a hands-off approach, setting up each thematic segment of the debate with a specific question directed toward a single candidate, and then bringing in other candidates by asking them to respond to what their counterparts just said. “”Do you have a response?” was how the follow-up usually went. What they really meant was: Fight!

Though this strategy ultimately proved exasperating, it was a mild improvement on Tuesday night’s debate, in which the moderators spent much of their time aggressively questioning the positions of Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, the two most prominent progressives in the field. While I understand the impulse to use the debates as an opportunity to hold candidates’ feet to the fire on their policies and public statements, the questions seemed mostly designed to get Warren and Sanders to admit that they are not, in fact, centrists. Mission accomplished?

Anyway, someone at CNN apparently decided the moderators should step back and let the candidates tear each other up instead. And so on Wednesday, Bash, Lemon, and Tapper mostly let the candidates engage with each other, intervening only to call time or bring other voices into the fray. This minimalist approach worked well during the health care section of the debate, in part because it exposed how uncomfortable both Biden and Harris are when being challenged on this topic. That’s valuable information for Democratic voters as they try to envision the general election.

By the end of the second hour, however, CNN had reached the limits of the “your response?” strategy. It turns out that “Candidate X, another candidate says this thing, what do you think?” is not a productive mode of questioning. At times it felt like the moderators had primarily researched what the candidates had said about each other’s policies, not what those policies actually said. The laziness showed.

Sometimes, when one candidate actually had criticized another’s policies, it was clear why the former should be asked to respond, as in the health care portion. But more often, the moderators would just randomly invite Candidate Y to respond to Candidate X’s statements without setting up why they thought Candidate Y’s perspective would be valuable. “We will have to stop separating children from their parents, make it so that it’s easier for people to seek asylum in this country, make sure that we are securing our borders and making it so that people are able to use our legal immigration system by reforming those laws,” Rep. Tulsi Gabbard said during the immigration portion. “Mr. Yang, your response?” was Lemon’s follow-up. What, exactly, was Andrew Yang supposed to be responding to? Gabbard hadn’t mentioned him at all.

A little bit later, Biden offered an odd, garbled comment about how “anybody that crosses the stage with a Ph.D., you should get a green card for seven years. We should keep them here.” Nobody understood quite what he meant. Instead of asking Biden to clarify, though, Lemon said, “Thank you. Thank you very much, Mr. Vice President. Gov. Inslee, what’s your response?” What? We didn’t need to hear from Jay Inslee about Joe Biden’s confusing statement. We needed to hear from Joe Biden about his confusing statement.

The candidates were sometimes confused by the moderators’ tactics, too. At one point, Biden said something about how immigrants made America great, and how President Barack Obama tried hard to change the immigration system in the face of significant pushback. “Sen. Gillibrand, what’s your response?” Lemon asked. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand didn’t have a response, because she wasn’t expecting to be called on, because Biden’s answer had absolutely nothing to do with her. “Ummm,” she said, fumbling for a few seconds before eventually eking out an answer about treating others the way you’d want to be treated. The sequence may come to be seen as a gaffe on her part, but it’s more accurate to see it as a function of the moderators’ strategy, if we can call it that, since their follow-ups barely required them to think about the substance of anything said.

I will concede that it probably wasn’t just laziness that dictated CNN’s approach Wednesday night. There were 10 people onstage and less than three hours scheduled for the debate, after all. CNN had to find some way to get all of the candidates involved, and daisy-chaining one candidate’s response after another was certainly one way to solve that problem. It just wasn’t a particularly helpful solution for voters. It wasn’t even entertaining, which was probably what CNN most had in mind.

No one said that moderating these crowded debates is easy. But it shouldn’t be this hard, either. Ask actual questions. Listen to their answers. Ask follow-up questions based on what the candidates said or didn’t say. When you bring a new candidate into an existing discussion, offer a brief prelude that explains why you think their perspective would be relevant. Give the candidates room to debate, but don’t abdicate your responsibility to keep the discussion on point. Sounds simple, but we didn’t see much of any of this on either Tuesday or Wednesday nights.

On Tuesday, CNN fixated on knocking down those pesky progressives by directing politically hostile questions to the night’s front-runners while showing bizarre deference to the least relevant candidate on stage. On Wednesday, CNN stepped back and let the candidates squabble—and left viewers with barely any takeaway at all.