CNN is already airing ads promoting its Sept. 16 Republican presidential debate with an audience-building hype that falls somewhere between reality TV and political cage fighting.
But, because there’s still time for sane network heads to do the right thing, I am proposing today a radical change in the way my journalist colleagues see their roles and do their jobs as debate interrogators.
We must begin with a simple critique of the debate questions journalists ask — a critique about which there can be no debate. And that’s the problem.
In debate after debate, my news media colleagues mainly ask questions that aren’t even debatable. They shy away from asking candidates to propose solutions for major national or global problems — topics all candidates can then debate, pro or con. Maybe they assume you’ll be bored with solution stuff.
Today, debate interlocutors too often ask journalistic gotcha questions. You know the type — queries that are carefully crafted to make one candidate duck and dodge, while the others just await their turn in the campaign carnival’s dunk-the-bigshot booth.
The decline and fall of presidential debates has taken us to low places we never envisioned back when John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon met in the first televised presidential debates of 1960. And it’s much worse in the primary/caucus season.
We saw an excellent example of well-crafted gotcha questioning in the Aug. 6 Fox News prime-time presidential non-debate debate. The first questioner asked Ben Carson about his gaffes of inexperience: “You’ve suggested that the Baltic States are not a part of NATO … you thought Alan Greenspan had been Treasury secretary instead of Federal Reserve chair. Aren’t these basic mistakes, and don’t they raise legitimate questions about whether you are ready to be president?”
Fair fare for a one-on-one interview, but it’s simply not a question that’s debatable. Yet, one by one, each candidate got the same carefully planned and scripted gotcha treatment. Then came the one you remember — that tabloidy “war on women” question posed by Fox’s Megyn Kelly, who recalled that Donald Trump had called women “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals” and once told a Celebrity Apprentice contestant he’d like to see her on her knees. She asked, “Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president?”
Now, how can 10 presidential hopefuls debate that?
CNN has a spectacular, made-for-TV opportunity to make a real, lasting contribution to America’s election politics. Let CNN open its debate by announcing this will be an old-fashioned presidential debate — with candidates being asked to discuss and really debate the problems and solutions that concern real Americans most. For example:
• Question 1: In the Fox debate, a citizen identified only as Alex Chalgren asked a question via Facebook that should have sparked a lively debate among all Republican presidential hopefuls: “My question is, how would the candidates stop the treacherous actions of ISIS — ISIL — and its growing influence in the U.S., if they were to become president?” Unfortunately, that was asked of only candidate Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas; then the circus moved on. Americans needed what the basic journalistic follow-ups could have produced — all candidates discussing how to mobilize the world to defeat this global terror threat.
• Question 2: All Republican candidates have joined the GOP’s call for repealing President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. But we haven’t heard them being asked specifically what they think is wrong with the health insurance plan they call Obamacare. Also: What they will replace it with? How will they do that without crating health care havoc and hardship? How can they guarantee a continuation of Obamacare’s grandest achievement — assuring persons with pre-existing medical conditions cannot lose or be denied insurance if they change jobs or move to new states?
• Question 3: Do the candidates agree with Trump’s tough talk (unsupported by specifics) about ending China’s economic dominance — or with conservative economists who contend his notions violate the foundation of their free-market principles? And more.
Now this: At the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library later this month, CNN has a chance to make a remarkable contribution to the history of presidential politics. CNN can become celebrated as the network that once again made our presidential debates, well, debatable.
Martin Schram, a columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.