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After CBS Disaster, News Networks Shouldn’t Host Presidential Debates

Last Updated September 23, 2020 1:36 PM
W. E. Messamore
Last Updated September 23, 2020 1:36 PM
  • Critics panned CBS News and moderators for losing control of the Democratic debate in South Carolina.
  • While debate pros at other networks called it a “disaster,” Meghan McCain said even “The View” has more orderly debates.
  • But it isn’t just CBS. MSNBC and NBC News have also flubbed debates in recent years. News networks used to report on debates, not host them.

Debate organizers at other news networks had harsh words for CBS News  after South Carolina’s Democratic debate. CNN’s Brian Stelter said “debate pros at other TV networks are exchanging messages calling this a ‘disaster,’ a ‘nightmare’ and worse.”

cbs news democratic debate south carolina disaster brian stelter tweet
Source: Twitter 

MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski asked if CBS could give the moderators a buzzer . CNN political analyst Joe Lockhart called it “a commercial for Donald Trump.”  Others ridiculed trivial questions about soda bans  and “what tree would you be.” 

Meghan McCain delivered perhaps the most scorching burn :

These moderators need to get this under control. This is way worse than any bad day @TheView hot topics table.

But the chaos at South Carolina’s Democratic primary debate was hardly the first time it’s happened. And CBS isn’t the only network that has flubbed debates in recent years.

News Networks Fail to Moderate Debates

In an increasingly ratings-driven, reality-television-style political environment, other networks have failed to moderate debates as well.

Perhaps most famously NBC News utterly failed to moderate the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Trump famously (or infamously depending on which team you’re rooting for) wouldn’t let Clinton get a word in. He interrupted the Democratic nominee 51 times .

As he goaded, interrupted and talked over a hapless Clinton, she sat by waiting for NBC debate moderate Lester Holt to do his job and moderate. This made her look passive and weak to television audiences that were on the fence or leaning toward Trump, and riled up his base. It should have been a career ending moment for Holt.

While it’s entertaining to watch politicians bicker like contestants on a trashy reality television show, it’s degrading the health of our civic institutions. If Americans want to watch the screaming and drama, they can tune into Real Housewives or Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Presidential debates should strive for clarity, not drama.

Networks Should Report, Not Host

During last night’s Democratic debate, New York Times media analyst Michael M. Grynbaum said CBS moderators lost control of the candidates :

CBS needs this break more than the candidates. That was a chaotic start. The moderators need to step in more forcefully and regain control in the next segment.

Maybe organizing the debate and the broadcast is more than news networks can handle. That was apparent in a Democratic debate last summer when MSNBC had a hot mic disaster . The network had a meltdown when first-half moderators left their mics on after leaving the debate. The television audience could here their conversations in the control room. Of course Donald Trump had a good laugh at the network and Democrats’ expense.

When the first nationally-televised presidential debates started in 1952, news networks didn’t host them. The League of Women voters hosted that first debate . The press just did what they’re supposed to do. They were their to broadcast and report what happened. When news companies get to decide the questions and moderate, it creates a dual role conflict where they start to shape the news.

Their interest in ratings may serve to undermine their duty to inform the voting public. The U.S. should revert back to the old arrangement. Voter advocacy groups, educational institutions and think tanks should host. News networks should just report.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of CCN.com.