David Zurawik

With first prime-time town hall in 2020 race Monday night, let's pledge to do better than in 2016

Senator Kamala Harris addressing the media last week at Howard University after announcing earlier in the day that she is seeking to become the first African American woman to be president. She will be featured in a town hall on CNN tonight.

The first prime-time town hall of the 2020 presidential campaign arrives Monday night at 10 on CNN with Sen. Kamala Harris, and that means it is time to start thinking seriously about how we in the news media can do better than we did in 2016.

Cable news channels have come to determine the focus and tone of national political discussion more than any other media platforms in American life. And when they move into the town-hall mode, it means game on.


As much as I honor the cable news channels for the time and resources they devote to politics, 2016 was a year in which they brought voters more confusion than clarity and far more noise than light in presidential campaign coverage.

Fox News totally sold out to Candidate Trump. And MSNBC and CNN allowed themselves to be played far too often — from MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” giving Trump unlimited airtime early in the race, to CNN hiring surrogates like Corey Lewandowski as contributors and affording them a national platform to spread Trump spin and lies.


But we in the media are terrible at going back and doing postmortems on our coverage. Besides, who had time after November 2016 with the chaos the president-elect started creating before even taking office?

I love TV town halls, because they are such clear examples of the enormous — some might say dominant — role media have come to play in the nation’s political life. You can’t cover presidential politics anymore using only political reporters. You need media reporters and analysts working side by side as the campaigns spend most of their time and treasure in media space.

Harris, who was one of the standouts of the explosive TV hearings on Supreme Court candidate Brett Kavanaugh, will get a chance to connect with caucus-goers in Iowa and voters across the nation tonight. That’s a big deal for the California senator so early in this race. The town hall at Drake University, in Des Moines, will he hosted by Jake Tapper, who handles the format as well as anyone in television.

So, here a few areas for cable TV executives (as well as all of us who will be covering 2020) to think about.

First, let’s not over-produce these town halls and totally control the questions, skewing the process in favor of those in the audience who we have put there because we think they will be good on TV. Let’s respect the tradition of the town hall a little and allow some room for organic audience questions and response even if it makes the telecast feel a little messy. (For those of us not working in TV, let’s do the same in the voices we bring into our reports, stories, podcasts and videos.)

Also, let’s not abandon our sense of what’s important to voters and needs to be discussed in favor of chasing the latest empty-headed, hip-shot, trending madness on social media. We in mainstream media have sinned badly in this regard in recent elections, and we truly need to stop.

What happened on Twitter with the students from Covington last week, hopefully, shamed some in mainstream media back to sanity. But the problem is bigger than that.

Don’t let your productions be driven by social media either in questions asked via Facebook or Twitter, or instant polling. The truth is we still have no real idea how manipulated the data we get on social media is, particularly when it comes to national politics. Think Cambridge Analytica, Steve Bannon, Robert Mercer and Trump in 2016.


That’s a start. I’ll offer more suggestions as the campaigns and TV coverage multiply. There is much room for improvement given the performance in the last election.

I am looking forward to seeing Harris, who will have her campaign headquarters in Baltimore, in the town hall format Monday night . I don’t know nearly enough about her to have an informed opinion.

I am trusting Tapper and the CNN producers to help me out in that regard.

I hope they are thinking of their audience tonight as citizens looking for ways to inform their votes — not just consumers to be entertained and served up to advertisers.