The presidential debate in New Hampshire Monday night produced no clear winner among seven Republicans, but it did expose CNN’s losing campaign to refine the quadrennial format.
Easiest to lampoon was the so-called “This or That” line of questions from which we learned that Michele Bachmann has “Christmas with Elvis” on her iPod, that Herman Cain, the former pizza magnate, prefers deep dish, and that Rick Santorum cares for neither Jay Leno nor Conan O’Brien.
In fact, those tidbits were among the highlights – which doesn’t say much about the candidates or the format. With the debate process starting early, and likely to include more such events than ever, what can be learned from CNN’s approach?
Foremost is that while social media are a powerful force in our lives, they have yet to be tapped for any useful purpose in televised debates. The relentless urging by host John King for viewers to send questions and comments via Facebook and Twitter achieved nothing, except to underscore CNNâ?Ts desire to be socially connected.
Not a single online question was used in the two-hour event. Yet, at one point King alluded to questions that were coming in, such as: “Would you have released the bin Laden photos?” “Would you support Israel at any cost if they’re attacked by surrounding hostile countries?”
“Good questions from our viewers there,” said King, and he then proceeded to ignore them.
CNN’s offer of “exclusive” information for those with smart phones was another promotion without purpose. “One of the things we are very eager to do throughout the campaign is to involve you at home and to use technology and innovation,” King explained. There was no evidence that CNN has figured out how to do it.
Although King continually referred to the format as a “conversation,” it wasn’t. The process of cutting to various remote locations for questions from the public may give the appearance of being folksy, while keeping things moving in a reality-TV sense, but it is not the best way to frame questions or elicit information.
Few campaigns in recent memory have had such pointed issues about which to debate. The wars, economy, healthcare, employment, environment. Where does each candidate stand? Because of CNN’s scatter-shot format, after Monday night we still don’t know.
Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith, for instance, is certain to be an issue for some voters. Yet, when the debate turned to religion, the question about church and state was put to only three of the candidates, and Romney was never heard from.
King announced that the “honor system” would replace flashing lights to limit the candidates’ responses. What viewers got instead, by way of King’s open microphone, were his constant “ouhs” and “oums” that started almost immediately after each candidate began to speak.
A cardinal rule for debate moderators: If you want to limit answers to 30 seconds, don’t ask questions that require at least a few minutes for a cogent response.
It is difficult for any format to accommodate seven candidates on one stage (in the early going four years ago, there were 10 Republicans at one debate). But the greater the number of participants the more critical it is that the format be streamlined and the questions be sharp.
At the end, King asked each candidate, “What have you learned in the last two hours?”
Michele Bachmann replied, “Tve learned more about the goodness of the American people.”
For most CNN viewers – beyond the fact that Tim Pawlenty prefers Coke over Pepsi – the answer was, “Not much.”
©2011 Peter Funt. This column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc. newspaper syndicate. For info call Cari Dawson Bartley at 800 696 7561 or e-mail Cari@cagle.com.