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Daily Howler: CNN staged a worthless debate. But that's how their lofty class functions
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DANCE OF THE SNOWMEN! CNN staged a worthless debate. But that’s how their lofty class functions: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, JULY 27, 2007

DANCE OF THE TANGERINES: We won’t have time for a full review of Gail Collins’ loathsome column from Thursday. Suffice to say, she was mocking Edwards—and serving you tangerine trivia:
COLLINS (7/26/07): John and Elizabeth Edwards were sitting at a camera-friendly spot along a coastal creek in South Carolina the other day, talking with environmentalists about global warming, when Mrs. Edwards mentioned that she was prepared to give up tangerines.

Much of the next hour was devoted to reporters' attempts to clarify this matter.
Interesting! Why in the world would a group of reporters spend an hour “attempting to clarify” such an apparently trivial matter? In Collins’ case, the reasons for the interest are fairly clear. In part, she wanted to get around to handing you garbage like this:
COLLINS: The Edwards campaign has devoted immense effort to beating back the image of their candidate as The Man With the Expensive Haircut. They don't want to make August the month for The Man Who Would Take Away America's Citrus Fruit.
In fairness, Collins waited till paragraph 7 to mention the world’s most important haircut. And when she did, she deftly moved to a bit of tangerine trivia.

But then, this column deftly displays the culture of your snide, sneering, upper-end “press corps.” The piece deserves a full review, and we’ll provide it next week. But let’s make sure we understand the mind-set of loathsome people like Collins. According to Collins, a group of reporters spent an hour “attempting to clarify” something Elizabeth Edwards said—something she said about tangerines. But guess what? Nexis records no other journalist saying a word about this discussion. Until Collins published this groaning column, no one else in the American press corps had bothered offering even one word about this alleged debate. (No, we’re sorry—Ben Smith doesn’t count.) Oh yeah—we almost forgot! Limbaugh had it too.

Did reporters actually spend a hour trying to clarify tangerine trivia? We don’t have the slightest idea. But Collins is a loathsome person—a blight on the American discourse. If you read to the end of today’s post, you’ll return to the type of work that gets churned by her empty heart.

Readers, we know what she said that autumn! We’ll suggest that you recall those words too—her words from the day when her class took out Gore. We’ll review Thursday’s column next week—the column in which she throws fruit at Edwards. Your press corps is a loathsome group—and that column reveals their sad folkways.

DANCE OF THE SNOWMEN: As the pseudo-dispute it engendered continues, we’ll have to agree with Mitt Romney’s statement about last Monday’s YouTube debate. Jose Antonio Vargas quotes the Mittster in this morning’s Post:
VARGAS (7/27/07): In an interview Wednesday with the New Hampshire Union Leader, Romney said he's not a fan of the CNN/YouTube format. Referring to the video of a snowman asking the Democratic candidates about global warming, Romney quipped, "I think the presidency ought to be held at a higher level than having to answer questions from a snowman."
Yes, there’s something a little bit strange about candidates taking their questions from snowmen. But we were more impressed by how worthless the question was—like so many other questions at this groaning forum:
QUESTION FROM SNOWMAN (7/23/07): Hello, Democratic candidates. I've been growing concerned that global warming, the single most important issue to the snowmen of this country, is being neglected. As president, what will you do to ensure that my son will live a full and happy life?

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

COOPER: It's a funny video. It's a serious question. Congressman Kucinich?
Oh, boy! It was good solid fun to see a snowman talking in that “Mr. Bill” voice! And other questions were worse—much worse—on this particular night. (For Jay Rosen’s rundown of all the questions, just click here.) But the snowman’s question was massively general—so general that it would have prompted candidates to recite their most general sound-bites. Except that only one candidate, Dennis Kucinich, was even asked to respond to the snowman’s “funny video!” After Kucinich spoke, we got a second question about climate change—a question which we thought was striking for its lack of precision:
QUESTION FROM HUMAN: Hi, I'm Stephanie. We're in the Bay Area, in my bathroom, because this is one of the places where I use compact fluorescent light bulbs. I use these to decrease my personal energy use, and I hear politicians talking about alternative energy to delay—to decrease our energy impact as a whole.

So my question for you is, how is the United States going to decrease its energy consumption in the first place? In other words, how will your policies influence Americans, rather than just using special light bulbs, to do this?

COOPER: Senator Gravel, how do you get Americans to conserve?
Soon, Cooper was scolding Senator Dodd for his unworthy answer. “The question was about personal sacrifice,” he said. For ourselves, we’d guess the opposite; to us, the question seems to be about programmatic national policy changes—changes that go beyond personal sacrifice. But the question was so poorly worded that the big smart journo who picked it out seemed to think that it meant something else. Or maybe Cooper just said that so he could play a bit of gotcha: How many people came here on a private plane, he then dumbly asked.

But so it went on Monday night when the hapless folk at CNN decide to rely on the people’s wisdom, producing the latest weak debate of this unfolding campaign. In fact, the debate was larded with awful questions—questions much worse than those two on warming. And CNN, which selected the questions, once again showcased a hard, bitter truth: The people who run our major news orgs are simply unable to structure real discourse. Such skill is light-years beyond their grasp. They can’t do it—simply can’t. Never will.

How bad—how uninformative—was Monday night’s debate? Consider the section on health care—a segment which came quite late in the forum, after CNN had dragged us through an endless array of facilely-covered topics. (Should women register for the draft?) Many people have praised the way this segment began, with three separate tapes in which regular people shared what Cooper called their “personal stories.” (Actually, there was a fourth tape, but it was entirely composed of sign-boards—and they simply couldn’t be read, due to CNN’s technical blundering.) Why did CNN run four tapes back-to-back? “We, frankly, were overwhelmed with videos on health care, so we put several of them together,” Cooper explained. And it did seem that Cooper had been overwhelmed, because this is the question he stood and delivered after showing those four health care videos:
COOPER: Senator Obama, 45 million uninsured Americans. Senator Edwards says your plan doesn't really provide universal coverage. Does it?
Very little information emerged from the brief segment which followed. But of course, we had to hurry to our next question—one of four, sprinkled throughout, in which citizens targeted Clinton:
QUESTION: Hi. My name is Chris Nolan and I'm a Democratic precinct committeeman from Mundelein, Illinois. And my question is for Hillary Clinton.

With Bush, Clinton, and Bush again serving as the last three presidents, how would electing you, a Clinton, constitute the type of change in Washington so many people in the heartland are yearning for, and what your campaign has been talking about?
I was also wondering if any of the other candidates had a problem with the same two families being in charge of the executive branch of government for 28 consecutive years, if Hillary Clinton were to potentially be elected and then re-elected.

Good luck. And, whoever becomes the nominee, I'm pulling for you. Go Democrats!
The question went to Clinton, then to Gravel and Obama. Yesterday, at Politico, Nolan showered praise on himself for the brilliant way he engineered the encounter (click here, go to item #3). We’ll only offer this brief excerpt from his detailed discussion:
NOLAN: It was just what I had wanted: to take a swipe at Clinton and then have Barack follow up with his “change has to be more than a slogan” message. What I saw was that Hillary was hurt by the question, perhaps even a bit angry or annoyed by it. Possibly catching her off guard, she resorted to clinging onto Bill's tattered coattails while at the same time asking to be judged on her own merits. The question was meant to call her out, and then let Obama finish her off. My ultimate purpose was to start a fight—I set them up perfectly for it...
No one so brilliant! (Nolan wanted to hear Obama’s “message”—the one that’s “more than a slogan.”) But so it goes when big news orgs avail themselves of the people’s wisdom. For the record, this question is such a press corps favorite that it was easy for CNN to pick it. (In this construct, we’re encouraged to vote against Clinton next year because of something that happened in 1988.) The network also selected questions in which an angry soldier asked Clinton why we should elect her president since Arab states don’t respect women, and in which an average person asked her how she answers the claim that she isn’t “satisfactorily feminine.” In the evening’s third question, she was asked to define “liberal.” And she was asked if she thinks the word describes her.

How do you define the word liberal! In our view, it would be hard to find a more useless question, which made it perfect for CNN. But then, other citizens asked the hopefuls questions like these: Which Republican would they pick for vice president? Are their feelings hurt when they read about Gore? What does “In God, We Trust” mean to them? And: Would they work for the minimum wage if they reached the White House? One average woman had the kumquats to ask if the candidates had “talked to [their] children about sex and used medically accurate and age-appropriate information?” It’s hard to know why this average citizen thought that was any of her gosh-darned business—or why she thought that an honest answer (which, of course, she probably didn’t get) would tell her who to vote for. But then, we also got to watch the candidates asked to name their favorite teacher, and asked to say something pleasant about the fellow or gal to their left. “And remember, be honest,” the average citizen warned them. We’re fairly certain they were.

There is, of course, no objective way to separate good from bad questions. If you were a tree, which tree would it be? Without doubt, there are average citizens who would feel they could learn from the answers—and there’s no way to “prove” that they’re wrong. But whatever one thinks of the individual questions—we thought a lot of the questions were awful—one thing can be said with certainty: Once again, we were handed a scattershot, ADD-style debate, in which CNN failed to organize anything resembling a detailed discussion of any particular issue. Sorry, but no: As a nation, we really can’t get very far when, three months into this campaign’s debates, we’re still pondering questions like these:
QUESTION: This here is a two-part question.

(SINGING): Pay taxes on my clothes and food, pay taxes on my place, pay taxes on my moisturizer, I pay taxes on my weights. I pay taxes on my land. Every year, y'all make me pay. I pay tax on this guitar so I can sing for you today.

(TALKING) My taxes put some kids in college. I can't afford to send myself. Now, tell me, if you were elected president, what would you do to help?
What would you do to help? As with the snowman’s question on warming, a singing question so massively general will lead to nothing beyond the most general sound-bites—especially with Cooper hurrying on to the evening’s three hundredth new topic. But these questions were chosen by CNN, and it was CNN which chose to cover so many topics—so many topics that none of them could be discussed intelligently. To be honest, we learned nothing about health care in this debate, because CNN isn’t up to the task of organizing informative discourse—a discussion which goes beyond the silliest questions (perhaps from snowmen, or singing cowboys) and the most general sound-bites.

We’ll focus on health care, for several reasons. First, it’s a matter of great concern, as almost everyone seems to acknowledge. (“We, frankly, were overwhelmed with videos on health care.”) Second, an important new film has put this topic into American theaters. (In the next few weeks, Sicko will pass Bowling for Columbine and An Inconvenient Truth, becoming history’s third-biggest documentary.) But a few weeks ago, CNN embarrassed itself when Sanjay Gupta pretended to critique the new Michael Moore film; on Monday, CNN’s first question about this topic was the 32nd question of the night. At this point, are major American news organizations capable of serious discourse? Once again, Gupta showed us: No. And these were the only questions about health care in Monday’s hapless debate:
COOPER: Senator Obama, 45 million uninsured Americans. Senator Edwards says your plan doesn't really provide universal coverage. Does it?

COOPER: Senator Edwards, does Senator Obama provide universal coverage?

COOPER: Senator Clinton, this goes back to the first question that we got. How is it going to be any different under your administration?

VIDEO QUESTION: Hi, this is Lucia Ballie (ph) for a group of friends on the east side of L.A. And our question is: Does your health care plan cover undocumented workers?
Dodd and Richardson answered Ballie: Yes. And then, we were whisked away to our next question, in which an average citizen says he “meant to call [Clinton] out, and then let Obama finish her off.” So it went as CNN accessed the people’s goodness.

Simply put, CNN wasn’t up to the task of organizing real discourse this Monday. Only five of eight candidates discussed health care at all, and we didn’t get beyond Level 1 sound-bites. But then, Gupta’s appalling reaction to Sicko showed us what we saw Monday night: Your big news orgs, like CNN, do not exist to create real discourse. Whatever they’re doing, they’re not doing that—and there’s no real sign that they plan to get started. They’re good at selecting singing questions, and they’re good at picking high-pitched snowmen. But in truth, Cooper was a clown Monday night—and he’ll be a clown again in September, when Republican hopefuls get their chance to answer vague questions from Frosty.

Other countries get much better health outcomes—at less than fifty percent the cost! But for whatever reason, Gupta just won’t tell you that—and Cooper blew past the worthwhile topics suggested in those “personal stories.” We’ll offer those personal stories below, but it has been proven again and again: People like Cooper are simply unable to build real discussion about our real problems. On Monday, he has too many topics to cover—too many singing questions to get to! Too many red-state comedy teams, too many “Mr. Bill” snowmen.

THOSE PERSONAL STORIES: Below, you find the personal stories featured in those tapes. To Cooper, the topic was “popular:”
COOPER: One of the most popular topics that we got questions on was health care. We, frankly, were overwhelmed with videos on health care, so we put several of them together. I want to show you some personal stories.

VIDEO ONE: Mark and Joel Strauss, Davenport, Iowa. Not every parent has the luxury of two loving sons to care for them during Alzheimer's.

My question for the candidates is: People like us. the baby boomer generation, is going to see a boom of Alzheimer's over the upcoming decades. What are you prepared to do to fight this disease now?

VIDEO TWO: Hi. These are my grandmothers. Both of them suffered from diabetes and ultimately died of massive heart attacks.

This is my mother. She suffers from diabetes and she's also had a heart attack.

The statistics for women with heart disease are staggering. What I'd like to know is, how do each of you plan on addressing chronic disease and preventative health in your health care plans? I would like my mother to be around to see her grandchildren.

VIDEO THREE: Hi. My name is Kim. I'm 36 years old and hope to be a future breast cancer survivor from Long Island. My chances for survival aren't as good as they might be, however, because like millions of Americans, I've gone for years without health insurance that would have allowed me to take preventative medicine.

What would you as president do to make low-cost or free preventive medicine available for everybody in this country? Thank you.

VIDEO FOUR: [Unreadable. CNN foul-up.]

COOPER: Senator Obama, 45 million uninsured Americans. Senator Edwards says your plan doesn't really provide universal coverage. Does it?
That woman who “hopes to be a future breast cancer survivor” has lived for years without insurance. Other societies provide universal health coverage for roughly half what we spend. And we’ll make a very strong guess; that woman has never heard that fact. Our news orgs give us tangerines, and let such people eat cake.

LET THEM EAT CAKE: In October 1999, Gore and Bradley debated health care in some detail. This was Mary McGrory’s reaction to their detailed discussion:
MCGRORY (10/31/99): Vice President Albert Gore came to his fateful encounter with newly menacing challenger Bill Bradley carrying heavy baggage. He was wearing an outfit that added to his problems when he stepped onstage at Dartmouth College: a brown suit, a gunmetal blue shirt, a red tie—and black boots.

Was it part of his reinvention strategy? Perhaps it was meant to be a ground-leveling statement—"I am not a well-dressed man." It is hard to imagine that he thought to ingratiate himself with the nation's earliest primary voters by trying to look like someone seeking employment at a country music radio station. Maybe it was the first step in shedding his Prince Albert image.
That was McGrory’s reaction to an evening devoted to health care. And here was the loathsome Collins:
COLLINS (10/29/99): Al Gore has a personality without a thermostat, and when he tries to look animated he practically crashes into the wallboard. On Wednesday he hijacked the auditorium early on, begging for a chance to do a pre-debate Q.-and-A. ("This person has a question! Do we have time for his question?") He tossed in a little Spanish and a long joke, and made endless attempts to create Clintonesque mind-melds with the audience. ("How old is your child, Corey? . . . Are you unionized, Earl?") At the end, he refused to be dragged offstage. ("Can I say one more word? I would like to stay!") He bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the kid who asks the teacher for more homework. Mr. Bradley, lounging on his stool, arms folded across his chest, looked like the high school athlete watching the class nerd volunteer to stay and clap erasers.
Truly, Collins is a loathsome person. Today, she talks about tangerines. Back then, she was appalled when Gore dared to ask if a worker was unionized. And here is Gore’s exchange with Corey Martin at that first debate with Bradley. This is the simple, human exchange which Collins chose to ridicule:
QUESTION (10/27/99): Hi, my name is Corey Martin and I live in Hanover. There's been talk tonight about health care reform and I'm the parent of a child who has diabetes and I spend a lot of time dealing with the insurance companies and what's covered and what's not covered and it eats up a lot of time and effort. So I'm wondering, if you were to implement health care reform, who would be the decision-makers? Who decides what's covered?

GORE: How old is your child, Corey?

MARTIN: She's five.

GORE: And do you have an insurance policy?

MARTIN: Yeah. I work at Dartmouth and we have a very good policy.

GORE: Oh, so you're—you have a good policy here? Okay, very good.

MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah. We're very lucky.

GORE: You know, we've just had a big increase in our research for juvenile diabetes...
Told that Martin had a sick child, Gore dared inquire about her well-being. For that, he was mocked by Collins, two days later. You know the rules! When he asked a simple, human question, he was trying to be “Clintonesque.”

But then, these are awful people. They don’t give a sh*t about average people, and there’s no sign that they ever will. (They don’t even seem to know how to pretend!) This week, Collins served tangerines; back then, she mocked simple decency. And other members of this high class shape your debates, now as then! Are you surprised that these scattershot sessions are so disjointed, so blatantly worthless? Do you wonder why average people have never heard that other countries provide full coverage—do so for half what we spend?