How Did CNN Do With the First Democratic Debate?

Cooper gets high marks, but the network is criticized for how it used the other debate hosts.

After two Republican primary debates that were high on entertainment and insult and low on substance, CNN’s first Democratic primary debate last night was a reminder of what a debate could be. Much to the pleasant surprise of many, the substantive, policy-heavy debate also managed to be interesting.

Coming from this:

We instead got this:

Anderson Cooper was largely praised for how he moderated the debate.

Mediaite’s Joe Concha summed up Cooper’s performance as showing “presence, consistency and gravitas on Tuesday night. Focused. Prepped. The questions were natural in their delivery, difficult in their content and stated with conviction.”

Slate’s Justin Peters praised both Cooper and the network, writing that “CNN redeemed itself Tuesday night. The network botched last month’s GOP debate by entrusting it to Jake Tapper, a likable and talented journalist who wasn’t ready to moderate a debate.”

Of Cooper himself Peters wrote:

By keeping the debate brisk and well-directed rather than allowing the candidates to slow the pace with constant interruptions and rebuttals, and by mixing questions designed to elicit long answers with ones meant to be answered in a sentence or two, Cooper kept the candidates off-balance and forced them to engage with one another and with the topics at hand. When the candidates discussed policies and laws that might have been unfamiliar to the audience, Cooper broke in to provide background.

Politico’s Hadas Gold noted Cooper’s preparation:

He started off asking pointed questions of each candidate, challenging them on their past records. After their initial responses, Cooper pushed back with clearly prepared notes, citing statistics and their past quotes, telling the candidates to actually answer the question he asked.

If there was criticism, it wasn’t directed at Cooper per se, but the roles to which the network relegated the rest of the debate crew, with Don Lemon and Juan Carlos López asking questions on Black Lives Matter and immigration, and Dana Bash on women’s issues.

Writing in The Washington Post’s The Fix blog, Janell Ross hit hard at the network, criticizing both the limited time Lemon and López had to pose questions, and the nature of the questions themselves, which read as “tokenism and really tacky debate structuring, pure and simple.”

Ross continued:

For many journalists of color, there is a recognition if not a sense of responsibility to ensure that immigration reform and police misconduct are topics covered well, covered often and covered with rigor. But there is also ample interest in and ability to cover other topics. There are, even, many journalists of color who can and do — gasp — ask questions about budgets and tax policy, education practices, and economic conditions every day. And, just like any reporter who does his or her homework, sometimes these reporters can pose questions that include some sense of the way that race and ethnicity can also shape all of the above.

“We’re good for giving the before and after analysis on panels,” wrote The Root’s Charles Ellison. “But even with Democratic primary debates, we’re not sitting at the main moderator table asking tough questions.”

The last time a person of color moderated a presidential debate, Ross reminds us, was in 1992. It’s been 23 years.

Publish date: October 14, 2015 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT