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CNN’s Debate Lottery Draw Is a New Low in Campaign Media

If you cover elections like reality shows, you will get reality stars as leaders

It's like a draft lottery, except the winner gets top pick of the nukes.

It's like a draft lottery, except the winner gets top pick of the nukes.

Kevin Sousa/Getty Images

Cable news coverage of politics has hit a new low. The next new low will probably be next week, but still. CNN’s NBA-style debate lottery Thursday night degraded us all.

“The Leader” held a special segment for the randomized determination of the order for Democratic Party presidential debates on July 30 and 31. They gave the show a snappy marketing title: “The Draw” – and had half the network doing promos and commentary. Anderson Cooper probably woke up this morning wanting a long shower.

After “The Draw,” the network had even had panels doing post-draft analyses. Talking heads gushed over the first night’s lineup (two “progressive champions” in Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren going head to head!) and raved over the potentially ugly Joe Biden-Kamala Harris rematch on night two (Biden’s camp felt Harris “crossed a personal line” in the first debate!). By night’s end, I lost count of the number of March Madness selection show clichés the network stole from CBS for the event.

The actual “draw” was like a “Best Of” collage sports programming ideas. Just before the actual determination of the order, they threw up graphics showing mini-portraits of each of the contestants, while Wolf Blitzer read off their names. This is basically the “Deion Sanders – The U” intro from Monday Night Football.

Then they had Brianna Kellar standing over a two crates: a “presidential candidate box” and a “debate night” date box. She then put in “name tags” in box one, and dates in box two, with cards “face side down” and “multiple camera views” to make sure – no cheating!

Everything about this setup, right down to the solid cards that make a clacking noise when shuffled, is like the NBA draft lottery show, although there are no cutaways to the candidates to see facial reactions (yet). There were also clear elements of The Price is Right in the randomized game elements and goofy name tags. All that was missing was Anderson Cooper shouting, “A new car!”

No one on CNN should be allowed to complain about Donald Trump again. If you have a billion-dollar communications business that dumbs down politics for money, you can’t turn around later and cry about having a dumb president.

TV has been working to turn politics into an upbeat, bankable product like sports, game shows, or reality programming for a while now. It’s why the sets for cable TV election-night coverage are indistinguishable from Sunday NFL Countdown, and debate coverage is always littered with boxing metaphors (“Fight Nights Past: Best Debate Knockout Lines” reads this CNN story!).

A live debate-lineup selection lottery is a dramatic step, however. It’s possible CNN was motivated in this direction by the MSNBC/Univision coverage of the first debate, which was basically a sports show disguised as earnest news coverage of a political party committing live-TV suicide by having too many bickering primary candidates.

Check out Chris Matthews hyping that last debate in this Hardball segment.  The Chryon read, STARTING LINEUPS. Matthews sounded like Vince McMahon teasing Wrestlemania or Mr. T predicting “Pain!” before a fight with Rocky:

“I predict we’re going to see candidates square off with more of the swipes they’ve already been taking at each other,” said Matthews. He went on to underline would Elizabeth Warren would “spar” with Amy Klobuchar, how Bernie Sanders would go “head to head” with John Hickenlooper (“Hickenlooper going after [Bernie] for his socialism!”), followed by Pete Buttigieg “going after” Joe Biden.

“Who do you think is going to be the one to take the first shot at somebody else?” quipped Matthews.

Who cares what the argument is about? We just need somebody to take a shot at “somebody else.” In this sense the fungal overgrowth of the Democratic field is a huge boon for the business. More contestants, more carnage! It’s only a matter of time before they give the candidates weapons and chainmail and have Michael Buffer introducing (“In this corner, carrying a halberd, the Duke of Delaware – Joe (The Gaffe) Biden…”).

Coverage of the Miami debate highlighted the most electric “moments” from the show, with the Harris-Biden feud winning the most plaudits (“Harris Shotguns Joe Sixpack” pronounced Maureen Dowd). In TV terms, it was saucy stuff, scoring all-time highs for a Democratic debate – a tough act for CNN to follow.

CNN seems thrilled there will be a Harris-Biden “rematch,” although the network hyped other matchups, including Chris Cuomo’s awkward meanderings about whether Cory Booker “makes a play for Harris’s lane” (“Because only one of those two has a chance to get the ticket,” he says), or if Biden would bounce back from his “weak” and “defensive” performance in Miami.

Issues are rarely mentioned in pre- or postgame analyses. These shows are entirely about the combat/performative aspect of politics, which makes sense, because that’s what sells, or what networks think will sell.

If you put debates on C-Span with no commentary, audiences would still watch. The exchanges would be much more useful to society. But this would defeat the purpose of the exercise: to make money for ratings-gobbling psychopaths like former CBS exec Les Moonves.

It’s astonishing that media executives don’t see (or care to see) how dumbed down programming changes the political reality they’re covering. Turn politics into a sports/reality show, and what you’ll get, pretty quick, are sports performers.

I saw this phenomenon start to come into view ages ago. Candidates aren’t stupid. They know they need coverage to win, so they’re sensitive to what media is looking for. If staffers hear reporters whispering that the candidate is boring, the campaign starts cooking up stunts. I was around when John Kerry was being ripped as “wooden.” Before long he was tossing footballs on the tarmac and rolling oranges up the aisle during takeoffs.

Beating on candidates for insufficient aggression is a constant. Barack Obama was criticized for having “passed on openings to attack” Mitt Romney in a debate, so he “came out swinging” the next time. To fight Donald Trump, Lindsey Graham put his phone in a blender, while Rand Paul shot up stacks of the tax code (using “an array of weapons,” Chris Matthews noted with cheer).

Commercial media is fantastic at creating entertainment programming. Give people with brains and creativity and energy a lot of money, and they will eventually make cool stuff, from sex-and-dragons epics like Game of Thrones to Chappelle’s Show to the Super Bowl. They’re even capable of making smart programming about serious political issues, like The Wire.

But put commercial media executives who have to make a certain profit number on the job of covering politics, and they can’t help but make a mess of it. As citizens, most people want peace and stability. As media consumers, they want confrontation, violence, and endless reels of idiots falling into mud puddles or wanking farm animals. Is it really such a surprise our politics are as dumb as they are?

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