The media winners and losers of the first Democratic debate

June 27, 2019

The winner

This won’t be a popular opinion, but the biggest winner in Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential primary debate was …

Chuck Todd.

The host of “Meet the Press” and the co-moderator during the second hour of Wednesday’s two-hour, 10-candidate debate is a punching bag for media watchers and critics alike. But when it comes to critiquing the performance of NBC’s coverage of the debate, Todd was the MVP of what was, except for a brief technical glitch, a solid night for the network. Todd was masterful in keeping candidates focused and on-point, while asking questions that elicited the night’s most thoughtful, intelligent and emotional answers.

What made him so good? Credit the skills honed while hosting “Meet the Press,” where he is tasked with controlling guests who often try to pivot past his questions by filibustering with their pre-arranged talking points. Todd, and to some extent his co-moderator Rachel Maddow, was able to corral the 10 candidates from turning Wednesday night in an out-of-control,  no-holds-barred, battle royale. That was no easy task with a bunch of eager candidates trying to elbow their way into relevance.

All of NBC’s moderators were strong. Savannah Guthrie, who led off the night, called out several candidates, most notably Beto O’Rourke, for not directly answering her questions. It’s what every good moderator should do, but something that not every moderator does. Lester Holt brought his usual professionalism and to-the-point sparseness. And Jose Diaz-Balart showed passion and emotion when asking about immigration.

There was one hiccup — when hot microphones caused confusion and forced NBC to take an unexpected break just as the second hour was starting — but the debate picked up energy when Todd and Maddow took over. It was Todd’s pointed questions (specifically about guns) and candidate wrangling that kept the energy going. And while I once had my doubts about Maddow being chosen as a moderator, she also made sure the debate didn’t turn into a free-for-all.

Near the end, Todd asked each candidate to name, in one word, what was America’s biggest threat. Not everyone was a fan of that question, but it was a bite-sized way to see what was a top priority of every candidate.

The sheer numbers — five moderators, 10 candidates, two hours — could have made for bedlam, but the moderators, led by Todd, made sure that didn’t happen. All in all, a good night for NBC.

The topics

NBC moderators played it right, asking the pertinent questions with topics including the economy, climate, gun control, immigration, Iran and health care. One topic not brought up by the moderators was President Donald Trump — and that’s wise. If the candidates wanted to take swings at Trump, that was their choice. But it’s not NBC’s job to offer up softballs to help them do it. Actually, the candidates didn’t mention Trump as much as many predicted. They also didn’t take any shots at Democratic poll leader Joe Biden, who debates tonight.

During MSNBC’s post-debate show, host Brian Williams said, “It makes 80 percent of the advance press coverage wrong. All of us, on our various broadcasts, had guessed for days … ‘You don’t want to be Joe Biden. He’s going to be the invisible pinata.’ It didn’t happen and that’s notable.”

The questions

Early on, NBC directed a lot of questions at Elizabeth Warren. In fact, Tulsi Gabbard’s sister, tweeting on Gabbard’s official account, accused the network of wanting Warren to win.

But when the night was over, according to CNN, it was actually Cory Booker who spoke the most, followed by Beto O’Rourke and then Warren. No candidate should complain that they didn’t get their chance to speak, not even Jay Inslee, who spoke the least.

The numbers

There were 10 presidential candidates during Wednesday’s debate. CNN had eight analysts on the set following the debate. It’s admirable that the network wants to get diverse voices with many viewpoints, but it’s just too many at one time. Oddly enough, the post-debate show had more moments of people talking over each other than the debate itself. MSNBC’s post-debate show was better, with three analysts joining host Brian Williams and co-host Nicolle Wallace, where there was almost no interrupting.

The cringe-worthy

The post-debate shows on MSNBC and CNN offered more confusion than clarity. It just goes to show that there is no consensus when it comes to the spin zone. A perfect example was how MSNBC talked about Bill de Blasio.

Nicolle Wallace said, “He was like an obnoxious guy at a restaurant or a bar talking really loudly on his cell phone.”

But Chris Matthews told de Blasio, “I think you punched above your weight tonight.”

In fact, Matthews’ effusive praise of de Blasio while interviewing him became uncomfortable and, frankly, inappropriate.

“I thought you were in this fight for real, not just one of the guys at the end of the row,” Matthews said. “Are you going to get to the center? When are you going to get to the center of this fight? … I believe in you tonight. I think you got in the fight. Stay with it.”

Stay with it? Oy!

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