|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 CNN’s desire to be socially
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
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
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 “uhs” and “ums” 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
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, “I’ve 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.”
(c) Peter Funt. This column was originally distributed by the Cagle Syndicate.