It’s all about ratings, so Scott Pelley’s departure was probably inevitable

Scott Pelley. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

I don’t often watch the network evening newscasts. But when I do, I watch the “CBS Evening News” with Scott Pelley, which strikes me as a little more intelligent than the competition — not to mention more willing to call out President Trump’s falsehoods, as Margaret Sullivan recently observed in The Washington Post.

So I was disappointed to learn that Pelley has been booted from the anchor chair and will return full-time to “60 Minutes.” The early breathless reporting by the New York Post turned out to be overblown. As Dylan Byers reports at CNN.com, Pelley’s office was cleared out at his request, and he’ll continue to anchor until a replacement is found, which suggests that he’s being treated with some level of respect.

But ratings are ratings. And with CBS in third place and sliding, Pelley’s departure was perhaps inevitable — although unless CBS has an animatronic Walter Cronkite waiting in the wings, it’s hard to imagine the network will come up with someone better.

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Clinton stumbles as Paris changes the terms of debate

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

It was such a charged moment that I almost expected to see a split screen. On one side: the still-unfolding horror in Paris. On the other: the three Democratic candidates for president talking about how the United States should respond.

CBS News didn’t go that far, though it did rearrange the format to move questions about national security and terrorism to the beginning of Saturday night’s two-hour debate. Bernie Sanders was reportedly none too happy about it, but it’s hard to understand why. He more than held his own with Hillary Clinton, matching her with his command of the details, reminding everyone that she voted for the war in Iraq, and explaining that there’s a clear link between terrorism and climate change. That last bit may cause some head-scratching, but in fact it reflects the thinking of Defense Department experts.

Clinton’s performance was adequate for the most part, but she was not as stellar as she was in the first debate, a triumph that re-energized her campaign. She was strong on the details, but she was also relatively humorless and charmless. She also had two moments that reflected poorly on her political judgment. The first of those two moments was also the more important, since it may make some question whether they really want her to be answering the phone at 3 a.m.

Moderator John Dickerson asked Clinton whether she agreed with Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio that “the attack in Paris showed we are at war with radical Islam.” A simple “yes” would have sufficed, and I’m surprised she wasn’t quick enough on her feet to realize it. Instead, she proceeded to head down a tangled syntactical path, arguing that we are not at war with Islam (that wasn’t the question), praising George W. Bush for making a clear distinction between Muslims and terrorists (OK, good point), and saying she preferred terms like “violent extremism.” (As usual, I am relying on a transcript published by The Washington Post.)

It wasn’t a terrible answer so much as it was overly complicated and somewhat tone-deaf. Just Google “Hillary Clinton” and “radical Islam” and you’ll see that the right is already in a high state of excitation. Is this a huge deal? Probably not. But it seemed to me that she handed an issue to her opponents for no good reason.

The other Clinton low point came in response to an arm-waving tirade by Sanders about her close relationship with Wall Street. It was actually pretty tough stuff from Bernie, including as it did a suggestion that she does favors for the financial sector in return for campaign contributions. “Why, over her political career, has Wall Street been the major campaign contributor to Hillary Clinton?” asked Sanders. “You know, maybe they’re dumb and they don’t know what they’re going to get, but I don’t think so.”

Clinton’s response was to play the gender card and to wrap herself in the flag of 9/11. “You know, not only do I have hundreds of thousands of donors, most of them small,” she said. “And I’m very proud that for the first time a majority of my donors are women, 60 percent.” Then came this doozy:

So, I represented New York, and I represented New York on 9/11 when we were attacked. Where were we attacked? We were attacked in downtown Manhattan, where Wall Street is. I did spend a whole lot of time and effort helping them rebuild. That was good for New York. It was good for the economy and it was a way to rebuke the terrorists who had attacked our country.

It was so brazen that debate panelist Nancy Cordes later hit Clinton with an observation from someone on Twitter who said, “I’ve never seen a candidate invoke 9/11 to justify millions of Wall Street donations until now.”

https://twitter.com/AndyGrewal/status/665727759168081920?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

(It occurs to me that I’m 650 words into this and I haven’t mentioned the third candidate, Martin O’Malley. He just didn’t seem to be a factor. Compared to Sanders and Clinton, he comes across as inexperienced and unprepared. And I finally figured out what his earnest, wooden speaking style reminds me of: the official response to the State of the Union address. That’s not a compliment.)

Most of the debate was devoted to domestic issues. No new ground was broken. Sanders is still appalled by “millionaires and billionaires.” All three support raising the minimum wage, although Clinton — there she goes again — gave a complicated answer that left me wondering exactly where she stands.

But given that the world is still dealing with the shock of the Paris attacks, let me return to foreign policy, an area that’s a real weakness for both parties.

International affairs should be a strength for Clinton, who is, after all, a former secretary of state. But liberals don’t trust her because of her support for the war in Iraq, and the right’s endless investigation into the Benghazi incident has undermined her reputation for competence and contributed to the longstanding perception that she’s not trustworthy. And I doubt many prospective voters see Sanders or O’Malley as a plausible commander-in-chief.

On the Republican side, it’s a whole lot worse. The hateful immigrant-bashing rhetoric of Donald Trump is the most visible (and audible) manifestation of the Republicans’ problems in dealing with the world at large. Marco Rubio is callow and inexperienced. Who knows what’s floating around inside Ben Carson’s head? Jeb Bush was rocked by Politico Magazine story over the weekend showing (as if we didn’t already know it) that no, his brother most definitely did not keep us safe. Maybe Lindsey Graham, a consistent exponent of John McCain-style aggression, is finally about to have his day.

At the moment we can’t guess how the Paris attacks will affect the presidential race. I was struck by the willingness of all three Democrats to continue accepting Syrian refugees — a humane and proper stance, but one likely to prove unpopular, especially since one of the terrorists appears to have entered Europe by pretending to be a refugee. Will we commit a significant number of American troops to the war against ISIS? Will we be able to prevent a terrorist attack from taking place here?

Given those difficult issues, it could be that the foreign-policy focus of Saturday night’s was premature. The stakes are likely to be much higher in the weeks and months ahead.

Live-blogging the second Democratic presidential debate

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10:57. That was so weird. The candidates remained on stage while Major Garrett reported on audience reaction to several key moments. O’Malley was giving a thumb’s-up to the crowd when Garrett said his slam at Trump got a big response.

10:56. And so it ends. Clinton began her campaign revival with the first debate. I suspect tonight will be seen as a minor setback. She wasn’t bad, but she was hardly dominant. Sanders was as good on the details as she was, and came across as more principled — and, needless to say, more passionate.

O’Malley isn’t terrible, but by comparison he comes across as less experienced and kind of wooden.

10:50. It finally occurred to me what O’Malley reminds me of: an official response to a State of the Union address. That’s not a compliment.

10:46. “We’ve been working you hard. Please take the next few minutes to puff yourself up in any way you like.”

10:40. I realize I said nothing about the candidates’ answers to the Black Lives Matter question. Frankly, the answers struck me as boilerplate, so I didn’t see any need to comment. But yes, I wish they had transcended boilerplate.

10:38. I’d like to see someone talk about the responsibility of private colleges and universities to hold down tuition and fees. That’s a huge part of the equation.

10:28. Sanders says again that he’s sick of hearing about Clinton’s emails, and he blames the media for reports that he’s changed his mind.

10:25. I’m going to be writing this up for WGBHNews.org as soon as the debate is over, so I won’t be able to incorporate any of the pundits’ reactions. But though Clinton has come across as knowledgeable and competent, she’s also been humorless and charmless compared to the last debate. You could say the same of Sanders, of course, but he’s playing a different game. Bernie acolytes won’t want to hear this, but I still think his main interest is in pushing Clinton to the left and influencing the party platform.

I’m also seeing indications on Twitter that the main takeaway for Clinton’s conservative critics is that she wouldn’t agree with moderator John Dickerson that “radical Islam” is our enemy. She was more comfortable talking about “jihadists,” “Islamists” and “extremism,” arguing that invoking “Islam” is too easily misinterpreted as anti-Muslim. Frankly, I’m surprised that Clinton wasn’t better at thinking on her feet. She had to know that she was handing an issue to the right.

10:16. Good to see a Twitter commenter calling out Clinton for wrapping herself in the 9/11 flag when she was challenged on her close relationship with Wall Street.

10:09. We’re now getting the Full Bernie as Sanders goes off on Clinton for her support from Wall Street. It must have stung, because Clinton responds by playing both the gender and the 9/11 cards. As pre-rehearsed as it was, I don’t think it was a good move — it was so transparent.

O’Malley, when finally given a chance to talk, calls Clinton’s Wall Street reform proposal “weak tea” and agrees with Sanders that we need to restore Glass-Steagall financial regulation.

Sanders either just said “The business of Wall Street is fraud” or “flawed.” I’m not sure which, and there’s a huge difference, needless to say.

10:00. It’s refreshing to hear presidential candidates arguing over how high the minimum wage should be rather than how low. As Sanders and O’Malley point out, it’s basic economics that everyone benefits when lower-income workers have more money to spend on goods and services. Sanders and O’Malley want $15 an hour. Clinton takes a nuanced, complicated position — $12 nationwide, but local officials could choose to go higher. But that’s already the case, so it seems like she’s being too cute.

9:50. O’Malley gets some applause for referring to “that immigrant-bashing carnival barker Donald Trump.”

9:45. Clinton wants to improve the Affordable Care Act. Sanders says he supports the ACA, but wants to keep pushing for universal coverage.

9:42. “I’m not as much of a socialist as Eisenhower,” says Sanders, noting that the marginal tax rate was 90 percent under Ike.

9:37. We’re moving on to the financial challenges faced by the middle class. Seems somehow inappropriate, but on with the show.

9:35. Poor O’Malley! The union-sponsored anti-Walmart commercial that just ran mentioned “Hillary, Bernie” and even the Republicans. But not O’Malley.

9:34. Clinton is as good as she was in the previous debate, but Sanders is much better. Interesting that all of them are still willing to take Syrian refugees with the proper screening. Again, the contrast with the Republicans is striking.

9:30. I don’t know why Sanders didn’t want to talk about national security tonight. He’s very good at this — as detailed as Clinton, and with more of an overarching philosophy. He makes a great point about the U.S. military, which has 5,000 nuclear weapons but devotes only 10 percent of its resources to fighting terrorism. “The Cold War is over,” he says.

9:29. It’s interesting to hear all three candidates take care to distinguish between violent jihadists and ordinary Muslims. Clinton even pays tribute to George W. Bush for visiting a mosque in the days after 9/11. Can you imagine what we’d be hearing tonight if the Republicans were debating?

9:23. Clinton and Sanders are having a serious discussion. O’Malley is a distraction.

9:17. Asked if he still believes climate change is our top threat, Sanders not only says “absolutely” but links it to the rise of ISIS. This is very smart. Numerous analysts have linked terrorism to environmental catastrophe, as desperate people fight over increasingly scarce resources. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has written about this quite a bit.

Sanders also rightly associates the rise of ISIS with the war in Iraq, which, of course, Clinton voted in favor of. “These regime changes have unintended consequences,” Sanders says. Clinton’s command of the details is impressive, but Sanders is holding his own and then some.

Martin O’Malley comes across as someone who’s feeling his way. Which he is.

9:09. In opening statements, Sanders quickly switches back to his “millionaires and billionaires” rhetoric. Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley stay on message in talking about Paris and national security.

9:01. The debate begins with a moment of silence — very brief but appropriate.

8:59. You may have heard that the Bernie Sanders campaign was upset at CBS News’ decision to refocus the debate on national security and foreign policy. Seems strange that someone who wants to be president can’t understand the need to switch gears after the terrorist attacks in Paris. Anyway, it will be interesting to see if any of it spills over into the debate itself.

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I’ll be live-blogging the Democratic presidential debate starting at 9 p.m. Please check in — and don’t forget to hit refresh to see new content. As you may know, CBS News has refocused the agenda to concentrate on foreign policy and national security following the terrorist attacks in Paris. There should be a lot to talk about.