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In retrospect, CNN made it clear from the start what it wanted from hosting the Democratic debates. For the first night, it pitted “The Progressives” against everyone else in such a way that denigrating Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren’s brand of liberalism became a requisite kickoff to any answer. For the second night, it put Senator Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden center stage for a “critical rematch” in the hopes that the fireworks of the first debate, in which Harris landed devastating blows to Biden on his civil rights record, might be repeated. (On that front, CNN mostly got its wish; Harris and Biden ended up defending their records more against the rest of the stage than each other.)

It makes sense that a network would keep an eye out for likely outcomes going into a debate night and accordingly prepare to handle them. But it’s another thing entirely for CNN to nudge people into performing the roles it wants of them with leading questions aimed more at starting fights than shedding light.

Both debates covered a wide swath of pressing issues including health insurance, racial injustice, and even the usually unspoken specter of climate change. But the ways in which moderators Jake Tapper, Dana Bash, and Don Lemon asked about them were almost always phrased to maximize the potential for combative answers. The first “Progressives” night challenged Warren and Sanders’ competitors to answer “yes” or “no” to questions like, “are Senator Sanders’ proposals going to incentivize undocumented immigrants to come into this country illegally?” The second “critical rematch” night began questions with descriptions of the disparities between candidates’ policies before ending with a blunt, “why is s/he wrong?” In one strange moment that highlighted how poorly primary debates have handled climate change in the past, Bash prodded Governor Jay Inslee about his campaign prioritizing the issue above all else by asking, “what do you know that the others don’t?” (as if the myriad catastrophic studies CNN rarely covers given what a bummer they are shouldn’t be enough).

The candidates often took the bait. But they also increasingly became frustrated at the framework CNN used to question them, and with good reason. These kinds of questions aren’t asked in good faith that an informative answer isn’t far behind. They’re asked to encourage sniping onstage that could make for a pithy clip to go viral. They chase explosive moments, not the kind of insight that people actually need to understand where a candidate stands. They represent cable news at its least helpful and most opportunistic. If CNN continues to conduct debates with a goading hand rather than a guiding one, all it’ll do is serve its own interests rather than the country’s — but maybe that, in the end, is exactly the point.

11 responses to “CNN’s Combative Debate Questions Failed Voters (Column)”

  1. cadavra says:

    CNN has been Fox Lite for years. No one who’s been paying attention should be surprised.

  2. Marcus the Political says:

    Who cares who wins, as long as you get the ratings. Right CNN?

  3. JE Vizzusi says:

    In all my years I have never seen the Democratic party in such a mess. Clearly there are no front-runners. And if you want to call Biden, Harris and Warren that they can never beat Trump.

    I have a strange theory about Joe. Nobody has said it so: “I don’t believe he’s all in.. in other words he’s not ready to debate nor try to win an election again. He sounds like an old man that should be retired from politics. His voice reflection says it all… Sleepy Joe

    I want Harris to rise so badly. But that won’t happen either. And this redneck Nation will never elect a candidate from my California. So that leaves Warren. She will be the front-runner and when Trump gets into that Indian shit she will fold up and go away.

    Its useless, the Democratics have nobody that can beat Trump… NOBODY! (and I’m saying this all as a Liberal) @JEV1A

    • Tez says:

      I don’t think Dems are in a bad spot than the GOP, but there are way too many on that stage and half need to fold their tents and go home.

      However, I think your right…Biden doesn’t seem to be too interested in this. Harris has potential & so does Warren…On the other end is Sanders and he another story.. At this point it does seem like Trump will re election…sad

  4. BG Terrill says:

    Having 10 politicians on a debate stage is begging for a food fight and the CNN moderators provided the all you can eat buffet. The format made for a quirky reality show but it really is a lousy way to choose your leader.

  5. Mackinder says:

    It was sad how skewed that debate was against Tulsi gabbard and yang. They gave them the least time and allowed the candidates to not respond to them while they then would respond to the prior question. It was a ploy to marginalize Tulsi gabbard and yang and it showed what true sexism and racism looks like when political privilege outranks truth. Sad night for the dems again magnifying irrelevant issues like bussing while Kamala denies she has incarcerated more minorities which is an utter lie. She imprisoned minorities in California in the 90s at a never before seen rate and she has the fall to call it out now??

  6. Anne M says:

    CNN’s debate structure was ridiculous. So many of their questions epitomized the “begging the question” logic fallacy by presuming the truth of the conclusion the candidate was being asked to address, which is type of circular reasoning that produces nothing bu confusion, e.g., asking someone how long they’ve been beating their wife before first providing that they are being their wife. Example from last night. Would you raise taxes to fund Medicare for all and not giving candidates adequate time, or even asking, how Medicare for all would work to reduce the “net” bill of consumers. because to address the tax issue in a vacuum is just silly. the question is whether, taking into account a raise in taxes to pay for it, a reduction in premiums and deductibles (and additional coverage that people can’t give now), what would the net result be to consumers. that is only question that would have gotten to the truth. and CNN repeatedly asked those stupid fallacious circular reasoning questions all night without giving candidates time to respond. indeed, it was like watching a prosecutor box someone in on cross-examination, without giving equal time to re-direct.

  7. mfass says:

    MANY thanks to Caroline Framke for the incisive column.

  8. Luigi says:

    Agree entirely witth this column. CNN wanted food fights and not substantive answers.

  9. Chris Rogers says:

    Why didn’t CNN just let Sean Hannity ask the debate questions?
    There was a clear attempt to end Bernie Sanders run by promoting
    attacks on Medicare-for-all from all the candidates.
    Did Sarah Isgur come up with that question? She’s a right winger.

  10. Christina Duncan says:

    Here, Caroline Framke brings perfect clarity to what we watched on the CNN-hosted debate. For the hosts to have manipulated the debate like that is scary after all we’ve been through since the 2016 election, and here you have it.