CNN debate had its moments, but real problems as well

Three hours was too long, and Jake Tapper never seemed in control of the conversation.

CNN's GOP debate Wednesday night had some very good moments. And I definitely came away with a better sense of some candidates than I had when the event started — especially Carly Fiorina.

But I never felt moderator Jake Tapper had the kind of control or authority that the troika of Chris Wallace, Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier had in the Fox News debate last month. And three hours and change was about one hour too long. I'm a political junkie and I was checking my watch when it ran past 11 p.m. thinking, "Will this ever end?"

The other problem that is going to leave a lot of viewers feeling disappointed in what they saw is that CNN had a more subdued Donald Trump than Fox had last month, which definitely lowered the wattage on the stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum. And CNN didn't have a Megyn Kelly to challenge Trump or any other candidate so pointedly.

Not that CNN didn't try for conflict. The producers started out using a two-shot for Trump and whichever candidate Tapper was trying to get to engage with Trump, and they never let up on that visual strategy.

In fact, the producers were trying so hard with the split screens that I wondered if they brought back some of the production crew from "Crossfire" to try and deliver a telecast that matched the boxing-match imagery and staging that CNN had been using for weeks in its promotions.

CNN got some conflict in the two-shots featuring Trump and Fiorina and Trump and Jeb Bush. But with a diminished Trump, it was usually Bush or Fiorina who came out looking better. While Bush came off better than he did in Fox debate, no one on the stage Wednesday night had finer TV moments than Fiorina

Typical of the way CNN pushed for moments of conflict, Tapper asked the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard to comment on disparaging remarks Trump had made about her appearance in a Rolling Stone interview that came out last week.

Trump had just finished attacking Bush for statements the former Florida governor had previously made about cutting funds for women's health — statements Bush later characterized as him having mis-spoke.

"I heard what you said," Trump countered to Bush's claim Wednesday night.

Fiorina used Trump's own words against him when called on by Tapper for reaction to Trump's ugly remarks about her.

"Mr. Trump just said he heard what Mr. Bush said very clearly," Fiorina began. "I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said."

Trump's face looked like Charlie Brown's when Lucy pulls the football away just as he's about to kick it.

CNN went all out on this debate, and clearly made a lot of good choices. The lighting, art direction, audio and audience placement were excellent.

But the bad choices had big consequences. I think part of the overall problem with candidates talking over or ignoring Tapper's admonitions was the choice to have only Tapper as moderator with Dana Bash and radio personality Hugh Hewitt in a strange secondary status seated away from Tapper and only allowed to occasionally ask questions when Tapper called on them.

Virtually every time Tapper tried to go to Bash for a question, one of the candidates interrupted and grabbed more airtime before Bash could ask her question. It went on all night.

I was also struck by how often the candidates said Tapper was mis-characterizing their words. If he was in fact correctly characterizing their words and they were using the challenges as a rhetorical strategy, he should have stopped the action early on and made an example of one of the candidates by reading the precise quote back to him or her and asking them what part of his original question was a mis-characterization.

He should have put them in their place by using the first or second candidate who used the ploy as an example to the others. Instead, after three hours, I still didn't know if he was or wasn't mis-characterizing their words. But I did know they had way too much latitude.

But what troubles me most is how commercial and show-biz concerns appear to have shaped the telecast. The excessive length is obviously a function of CNN being able to sell ads at astronomical rates.

I'm all for an outfit like CNN that supports a first-rate journalistic infrastructure making all the money it can on a TV event like this. But when you let the ability to sell ads dictate the very shape of your presidential debate, it seems fair to ask whether the event is more about money than it is information, public service or serving democracy.

That's OK with most forms of commercial cable TV programming. But not one that directly influences the way we select a president.

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