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Oppenheim: Rating The Debate

It didn’t start particularly well. The “open”, as it’s called – the part with lots of music and graphics and voiceover to start the show... sounded like a football game. Hillary!... Bernie!... Nevada!... something like that. It looked glitzy – and ditzy.

Mind you, I had reason to be worried. The first two Republican debates were food fights. In the second one, also on CNN, moderator Jake Tapper encouraged interaction between the candidates, which shifted the focus from policy to pettiness. Neither the candidates nor the media covering them came out looking good.

This time, however, I was pleasantly surprised. Moderator Anderson Cooper asked most of the questions and challenged the candidates on perceived weaknesses. He didn’t let them give speeches and demanded answers with smart follow-ups.

It wasn’t perfect. Other CNN reporters - Dana Bash, Juan Carlos Lopez and Don Lemon – had minimal roles and didn’t add much.

But Cooper’s command lead to a more civil tone, an outcome helped by various other factors. For one, Donald Trump wasn’t in the room – and Bernie Sanders was. Sanders’ focus on economic equity, and his general grasp of domestic and global issues, added gravitas. Hillary Clinton, generally considered the top performer in this debate, also showed her ability to explain her positions, even ones she’s changed.

Viewers got a chance to evaluate the candidates more in terms of how they think, and less in terms of how they squabble.

And then there’s the math. There were only 5 Democrats on stage, compared to eleven in the top tier of the last GOP contest. That also gave CNN more room - and time - for depth.

What’s unusual – so early in this election cycle - is the ratings. On air and online, they are staggering. CNN got an estimated 15 million viewers, the biggest TV audience for any Democratic presidential primary debate ever. Another million or so viewers streamed the debate online or on mobile.

That’s good news for a democracy... that many of us spent a couple hours getting informed more than a year before the election. But beware. Those big ratings can be toxic. CNN, or any network hungry to break out in this drawn-out election process, can pander to make these events more entertaining than enlightening.

However, I will say this. Up to this point, the marriage of media and presidential politics has been so shallow, I was embarrassed for my country – and the way we elect our leader.

This time around, I saw a glimmer of hope.

Keith Oppenheim, Associate Professor in Broadcast Media Production at Champlain College, has been with the college since 2014. Prior to that, he coordinated the broadcasting program at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan (near Grand Rapids). Keith was a correspondent for CNN for 11 years and worked as a television news reporter in Providence, Scranton, Sacramento and Detroit. He produces documentaries, and his latest project, Noyana - Singing at the end of life, tells the story of a Vermont choir that sings to hospice patients.
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