Zap! Pow! The debates need to move beyond conflict, time limits and fringe candidates

The good old days: Abraham Lincoln debates Stephen Douglas in 1858.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Here we go again.

Four years ago the media gave an enormous boost to Donald Trump by making him the star of their multi-candidate Republican presidential debates. Despite his racist demagoguery and his utter lack of qualifications, Trump was moved to center stage and allowed to talk longer than anyone else because of his poll numbers and his salutary effect on TV ratings.

This time, at least, the Democratic candidates getting the center-stage treatment are reasonably plausible future presidents. But during CNN’s two-night extravaganza this week, and at the NBC debates last month, the same flaws were on display: an emphasis on combat over substance, a ridiculous adherence to time limits (at least NBC let Kamala Harris and Joe Biden go at it), and the elevation of fringe candidates who really have no business being there.

As the historian Kevin Kruse put it:

Although the moderators could have done a better job (I’ll get to that in a bit), the format itself is the real problem. CNN deserves credit for holding one-hour, one-candidate town halls with many of the contenders earlier this year. But how many viewers can make that sort of time commitment? The debates are what truly matter, and they are broken.

One alternative would be to schedule six hours of prime time over three nights for 15-minute interviews. You could actually accommodate all 24 candidates, and it would be a vast improvement over 15-second responses. Another idea comes from my former Northeastern colleague Alan Schroeder, an expert on presidential debates: bring in groups of two or three candidates for 15-minute rounds and have an open discussion. “The point is,” he said on Twitter, “there are much better ways to distribute the precious airtime.”

Even within the ridiculous constraints of the multi-candidate format, though, the moderators could have done better. In the first round, Chuck Todd took a lot of well-deserved heat with his demand for one-word answers to complicated policy questions (grunt once for “yes,” twice for “no”). This time, critics have targeted Jake Tapper for tossing undiluted Republican talking points at the Democrats and for all but encouraging the candidates to verbally assault each other. Tom Jones, who writes the newly renamed Poynter Report (and who, oddly enough, is a fan of Todd’s moderating style), described it this way:

“Tapper’s moderating strategy appeared to be nothing more than antagonizing the candidates into disagreeing with one another. Many of his questions were a version of, ‘Why is (such-and-such candidate) wrong?’

“That’s different than the approaches of fellow moderators Dana Bash and Don Lemon. Bash was the star of the night, asking candidates to state and defend their policy ideas — which is the point of a debate when voters are still trying to figure out who everyone is and who they might support. Lemon, meanwhile, started many of his questions with a very solid, ‘Tell us why you’re the best candidate to …’

“It’s not Tapper’s job to make the candidates look good or bad, but the leaders of the Democratic party could not have been happy that the tone of the debate was so nasty and that nastiness was often a direct result of Tapper’s questions.”

Or as the pollster Matt McDermott put it (via The Washington Post): “Imagine CNN asking in a Republican debate: ‘Democrats want to ensure health care for all Americans. You want to kill people. Care to respond?’”

So who won? I have no novel observations. Like just about everyone, I thought Elizabeth Warren was the week’s clear winner on both substance and style. They say you shouldn’t punch down, but her evisceration of some guy named John Delaney was one for the ages. Biden was OK, and much better than he was in June, even though he screwed a few things up and is already getting roasted for being disingenuous about his past and for not knowing the difference between a website and a text message. He was energetic, fought back, and launched a few attacks of his own. If Biden is going to drop in the polls, I’d say it won’t be quite yet.

Harris, who strikes many people (including me) as uniquely positioned to unite the progressive and moderate wings of the party, took a big step back from her breakthrough moment during the first round of debates. She blew it in several ways, including substance: she seemed utterly incapable of explaining her new health-care proposal coherently. That was a lost opportunity given the reservations people have over a pure single-payer Medicare for All plan on the one hand and the reluctance to simply nibble at the edges of Obamacare on the other.

Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro, and especially Cory Booker all did well and probably deserve one more shot. But honestly, at this point it’s hard to imagine that the nominee will be anyone other than one of the frontrunners — Biden, Warren, Harris, and Bernie Sanders. We deserve to hear from the four of them directly. The others can be relegated to undercards and other events.

What do the media owe us in televised debates? Substance, focus, and seriousness of purpose. It’s a cliché, of course, to say that this is the most important election of our lifetime. But the stakes may be nothing less than a recommitment to democracy versus a continued slide into authoritarianism.

Grunt once if you agree, twice if you disagree.

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Net neutrality and the future of journalism

This article was originally published by the media-reform organization Free Press and is posted here by permission. Josh Stearns is the journalism and public media campaign director for Free Press. You can follow him on Twitter at @jcstearns.

Josh portraitBy Josh Stearns

Tuesday’s court decision, which struck down the FCC’s open Internet order and threatened the future of net neutrality, has huge implications for the future of journalism and press freedom.

According to the Pew Research Center, half of all Americans now cite the Internet as their “main source for national and international news.” For young people the number is 71 percent. While we are nowhere near stopping the presses or tearing down the broadcast towers, the Internet is increasing how we distribute and consume the news today.

The future of journalism is bound up in the future of the Internet.

That is why net neutrality is so important and why the court decision this week should worry digital journalists and publishers. For newsrooms the decision means that a company like AT&T or Verizon could decide where their users can go for news and what stories get buried or blocked online. Verizon could strike a deal with CNN and hamper their users’ ability to access alternative news sources. Comcast could slow access to Al Jazeera, because it wants to promote its NBC news offerings.*

That’s why, in 2010, U.S. Sen. Al Franken argued that “net neutrality is the First Amendment issue of our time.”

No journalist or publisher should be held hostage by the commercial or political whims of an Internet service provider. In the end, however, the biggest media companies aren’t likely worried about this court decision. As Stacey Higginbotham wrote:

In many ways this will be a win for the large content companies such as Disney or Viacom. Yes, they might have to pay for prioritization on the broadband networks, but they have deep pockets and such a move would help them ensure their content continues to reach consumer eyeballs as the television industry fragments online. It’s possible we could see the emergence of a pay TV bundle of content that is either exempt from caps or just delivered with pristine quality while YouTube videos sputter.

But it is not just sputtering YouTube videos we need to worry about. It is people’s ability to access the independent journalism and diverse voices, which have thrived on the Web.

In 2009 a coalition of nearly 50 online journalism innovators sent a letter to the FCC, calling on the commissioners to protect the open Internet. “Net Neutrality ensures that innovative local news websites and national nonprofit reporting projects can be accessed just as easily as legacy media sites,” they wrote. “Net Neutrality encourages journalists to pioneer new tools and modes of reporting and lowers the bar for citizens to participate.”

Net neutrality is about creating a level playing field for all voices.

In an ironic twist, when it argued against net neutrality at the federal appeals court, Verizon claimed it actually had a First Amendment right to block and censor Internet users. And while the court largely ignored Verizon’s First Amendment claims, its ultimate decision essentially gave Verizon the green light begin “editing” the Internet.

As more and more news and information moves online, we need to ensure that the flow of online information is free and unencumbered. Traditional battles over press freedom are critical, as the recent Committee to Protect Journalists report so clearly showed, but today we also have to understand that keeping the Internet free goes hand in hand with keeping the press free.

The court decision this week is bad news for the Internet and for independent media, but it is not the last word in this debate.

The Federal Communications Commission can reclassify broadband as what it is: the fundamental communications infrastructure of our time. That simple action would re-establish its legal authority and ensure that its can protect consumers and journalists from online discrimination. Protecting freedom of the press can’t stop online.

* Because of the conditions placed on their deal to buy NBC in 2011, Comcast has to abide by net neutrality principles until 2018 regardless of this court case.

GlobalPost to partner with NBC News

GlobalPost, the Boston-based international news organization founded by veteran Boston journalist Phil Balboni, announced a partnership earlier today with NBC News.

“When you get the opportunity to work with a world-class news organization and a powerhouse digital brand the caliber of NBC News, you jump at it,” Balboni said in a statement.

The move is a significant step forward for one of GlobalPost’s business strategies — providing international coverage to other news organizations. According to the announcement, GlobalPost reports will appear on NBC News, MSNBC and their websites.

Misplaced priorities at the Boston Police Dept.

Howard Zinn
Howard Zinn

Last October the Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU revealed that the Boston Police Department had been spying on left-wing activists such as the late Howard Zinn.

The police were working with the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC), a so-called fusion center through which the authorities could coordinate with the FBI and other agencies to find out who might be plotting a terrorist attack. Zinn, a peace activist, an elderly professor and World War II hero, was clearly someone to keep a close eye on.

Of course, we now know that at the same time the police were wasting their resources on Zinn, they were ignorant of what the FBI knew about Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Among those putting two and two together in the last few weeks were Michael Isikoff of NBC News;  Boston journalist Chris Faraone, who produced this for DigBoston; and Jamaica Plain Gazette editor John Ruch, who wrote an analysis.

Although it would be a stretch well beyond the facts to suggest that if the police hadn’t been watching left-wing and Occupy protesters they might have caught Tsarnaev, the BPD was certainly looking in all the wrong places. The police did a good and courageous job of reacting to the Boston Marathon bombings. The issue is how they spent their time and resources in trying to prevent a terrorist attack.

Spying on the antiwar left makes no more sense today than it did in the 1960s and ’70s. Police Commissioner Ed Davis needs to take a break from giving commencement speeches in order to answer a few questions.

And while I’m on the subject of questionable law-enforcement practices, I sure hope we find out what actually happened in Florida last week. Don’t you?

O’Reilly called Nolan’s protest “outrageous”

Barry Nolan
Barry Nolan

Two years ago, the Phoenix newspapers bestowed one of their annual Muzzle Awards on Comcast for firing Barry Nolan, the Boston-based host of “Backstage,” which appeared locally on CN8.

Nolan’s apparent offense: speaking out against a decision by the National Academy of Arts & Sciences to present a coveted Governors Award to Fox News blowhard Bill O’Reilly. Nolan showed up at the Boston Emmy Awards to protest the choice.

“I got fired for saying demonstrably true things in a roomful of news people that people agreed with,” Nolan told me at the time. “Which tells you more, I think, about the times we live in than about the idiosyncrasies of somebody at Comcast.”

Now, at long last, Nolan’s story — and his $1.2 million wrongful-termination suit against Comcast — is getting a full airing. Earlier this week, the Columbia Journalism Review posted on its website a 2,700-word story by veteran Boston journalist Terry Ann Knopf. The chief revelation: a “carefully worded, lawyerly letter” from O’Reilly to Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts in which O’Reilly said he considered Nolan’s one-man crusade to be “outrageous behavior” and “a disturbing situation.” O’Reilly wrote:

We at “The O’Reilly Factor” have always considered Comcast to be an excellent business partner and I believe the same holds true for the entire Fox News Channel. Therefore, it was puzzling to see a Comcast employee, Barry Nolan, use Comcast corporate assets to attack me and FNC.

(Disclosures: Knopf, a former longtime television critic for the Patriot Ledger of Quincy, interviewed me for her story, and quotes me. Also, I have spoken twice to her media-criticism students at Boston University.)

Now, it’s true that Nolan publicly referred to O’Reilly as “a mental case.” But the fact that O’Reilly would reach out to crush a critic who was in no position to do him any real harm only serves to underscore his reputation for bullying people. It’s even more disturbing that Comcast, which is now trying to acquire NBC, would cave.

Oddly enough, Knopf’s story was originally slated to run in the Boston Globe Magazine. When Knopf interviewed me, she was on assignment for the magazine. In late July, I received a call from a Globe Magazine fact-checker. Both Knopf and Globe Magazine editor Susanne Althoff declined to comment this week when I asked them why the piece was killed.

The story of Barry Nolan and Bill O’Reilly is the story of what happens when someone goes up against two of the most powerful media corporations on the planet. In the Age of the Internet, the moguls may not be what they used to be. But they’re still moguls. And they’ve still got a lot of power.

Photo (cc) by Bev Sykes and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.