August 1, 2019

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Good Thursday to you. Another round of debates is now complete, and the general feeling, at least in the Twitterverse, is thank goodness the next round isn’t until September. As political analyst and former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm said on CNN’s post-debate show, “This was a joyless debate.”

Long on antics, short on time

There was no redemption for CNN during a second debate Wednesday night.

The Democratic presidential candidates spent as much time beating up each other and Barack Obama on Wednesday night as they did President Donald Trump.

Did CNN having anything to do with that? Frankly, yes.

The plan in any debate is for the fringe candidates to gang up on the leaders. That meant Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were going to be targets. No matter what the questions were, the candidates had a plan to attack. But the CNN moderators — and I’m talking specifically about Jake Tapper — made their job easier.

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.

It felt as if the first round of debates last month produced more organic disagreements and more substantial conversations. Maybe that’s because NBC’s moderators did a better job than CNN’s.

Critics: Lemon should stay in his lane

Don Lemon last month in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Don Lemon took a good amount of criticism, particularly from the right, for his debate performance. And some of it was deserved. Many jumped on this Lemon question:

“Why are you the best candidate to heal the racial divide that exists in this country today which has been stoked by the president’s racist rhetoric?”

As a supposed neutral debate moderator, Lemon crossed a line and inserted his political opinion into that question. If Lemon wants to use his CNN primetime show to offer up such opinions, that’s fine. But it should not happen in a debate.

That wasn’t the only time Lemon swerved outside his lane. He also asked this on Tuesday:

“What do you say to those Trump voters who prioritize the economy over the president’s bigotry?”

Look, Lemon doesn’t like Trump. And Trump doesn’t like Lemon. Trump’s attacks on Lemon give Lemon every reason to feel threatened and bullied by Trump. CNN’s Brian Stelter tweeted that Trump’s attacks on Lemon make “journalists less safe,” and there could be something to that.

But a moderator must be objective. His or her questions cannot be loaded. Leave the blustering to the candidates. In a debate, the people answering the questions can criticize the president. The people asking the questions should not.

There’s gotta be a better way

All the Democratic presidential candidates involved in Wednesday night’s debate at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

There has to be a better way to run these debates when you have 20 candidates. Having 10 on a stage at one time produces what you saw each of the past two nights, which was having severe time limits. The point of that is to make sure everyone has a chance to speak about a wide array of topics. But that also means candidates could only scratch the surface of really important ideas.

What’s the solution? The moderators could let the rules slide a bit, as NBC did in the first debate. Maybe that’s why the debates on NBC produced more meaningful moments than what we saw on CNN the past two nights.

In a column published Wednesday, the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan wrote, “CNN’s moderators, like the strictest of school masters, allowed almost no actual debating as they enforced the time limitations. That ridiculous rule needs immediate reform.”

The other thought is to have fewer candidates at one time, but there’s probably a fear that no one is going to tune in if the debate is spread out over more than two nights.

Sullivan offers a few suggestions on how to improve the debate based on conversations she had with TV and political consultants. But it still feels like the best hope is for the moderators to have a better feel for what’s taking place and adjust rather than to be sticklers for rules that make little sense.

Watching: the numbers.

People watch the second debate at Shaw’s Tavern in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Tuesday’s first night of the debate had 8.7 million viewers, according to Nielsen Fast National data. That’s the second-highest Democratic debate ever on CNN behind a 2015 debate. However, Tuesday’s numbers were way down from the 15.3 million and 18.1 million who watched the first round of debates on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo last month.

Keep in mind that more viewers have access to NBC than CNN, but NBC also likely benefitted from the novelty of the first debate. Plus, as Politico’s Michael Calderone notes, viewership might be down because it’s the middle of summer when TV viewing often wanes. I’m guessing that with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the second night had a few more viewers than Tuesday.


More thoughts on the LA Times’ memo

I have some leftover thoughts about the story I first reported Tuesday that found digital subscriptions at the Los Angeles Times were far below expectations.

It’s admirable that the leaders of the Times are transparent with their employees. If you want your staff to address a problem, it’s critical that the staff knows the full extent of those problems. And let’s be clear, the numbers paint a pretty bleak picture: The Times was hoping to add 150,000 digital subscribers this year and it has only netted 13,000.

More troubling is that 52,000 signed up, meaning nearly 40,000 cancelled their subscriptions. If that many are getting your product and then decide they no longer want it, what does that suggest?

I read the LA Times regularly and the journalism is outstanding. That would lead me to believe the retention problem is a business issue more than an editorial one. Based on numbers collected by Nieman Lab, it’s also important to note that most outlets other than The New York Times (2.7 million digital subscribers) and The Washington Post (1.7 million) are trying to figure out the digital game. (The LA Times is at around 170,000.)

So is there any hope that most news outlets can ever get readers to pay for content?

“I’m confident that we can create content that people will think valuable and will pay for, yes,” Los Angeles Times Executive Editor Norman Pearlstine told me in a phone interview.

That’s why Pearlstine remains optimistic about the future of the Times.

“Oh for sure,” he said. “And part of that is we have great opportunities in our own backyard of doing a really good job of covering California. … But always what distinguishes us from most metros and makes us feel that we have lots of upside is that we think that there are very many categories of coverage where there’s a big audience outside of our geographic place that we can attract.”

They don’t take no for an answer

The New Yorker editor David Remnick, left, and staff writer Jane Mayer in 2019. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

The two baddest journalists on the planet right now (that’s meant as a huge compliment) might be the Miami Herald’s Julie K. Brown and the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer. Brown was the driving force behind the Herald’s coverage of Jeffrey Epstein. Mayer has had two high-profile in-depth stories this year: one on the relationship between Fox News and President Trump and the other was revisiting the case of former senator Al Franken.

Brown and Mayer were the subject of revealing Q&A with Sarah Cristobal in InStyle. My favorite question was the first. Cristobal asked them what makes a “badass” journalist?

Mayer said, “I think it’s someone for whom ‘no’ is just the beginning of the conversation. They see ‘no’ the way a bull sees a red flag. Like, ‘Oh, really? OK, charge.’ Fundamentally, it’s about doing something that is bigger than you. And that gives you courage. It gives you purpose and strength.”

Brown said, “I’m the type of journalist who doesn’t take no for an answer. You’re not really afraid of anything because, as Jane mentioned, it is about something bigger than someone telling you no or trying to intimidate you. I can’t even remember a time in my career that I felt intimidated. If anything, it sort of empowers me.”

Paradise lost

Kristine Potter for The California Sunday Magazine. (Courtesy)

The California Sunday Magazine has become one of my go-to outlets, consistently producing some of the best long reads in the business. The latest outstanding piece is Mark Arax’s 10,000-word cover story on the Paradise fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history.

How did 85 people die? How did 19,000 structures get destroyed? Arax digs in to ask if the fire came to Paradise or, actually, did Paradise go the fire?

Hot type

  • The United States was supposed to stop family separations at the border. But both The Washington Post and The New York Times have stories reporting more than 900 families have been separated since the practice was to have officially ended.
  • So what now with Gawker Media? It doesn’t sound good, according to a story by the New York Post’s Alexandra Steigrad.
  • “You’re gonna kill me!” The Dallas Morning News’ Cary Aspinwall and Dave Boucher with the final moments of Tony Timpa’s life in police custody.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
Tom Jones

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Comments are closed.

  • There is a racial divide in this country and it is being stoked by Trump. The New York Times and The Washington Post, among other major news organisations, have accurately called his tweets telling four minority congresswomen “to go back to where they came from” racist. Ditto his comments about Baltimore congressman Elijah Cummings and his “rodent infested” district “where no human being would want to live.” Trump is engaging in strategic racism. Defined by Ian Haney Lopez in his book, Dog Whistle Politics, strategic racism “refers to purposeful efforts to use racial animus as leverage to gain material wealth, political power or heightened social standing.” Trump has put the dog whistle away and replaced it with a bullhorn. Don Lemon’s questions were appropriate and raised moral questions that should be part of the debate over who should occupy the White House.

  • Lemon’s questions are perfectly valid. Not the least bit “loaded.” Irrelevant what “the right,” if that is code for Republicans, thinks about them anyway. The debates are intended, however flimsily, to help Dems choose a candidate. Lemon’s Qs facilitate the (imperfect) process.