Fake Fights Give False Impressions

Becky O'Malley
Friday August 02, 2019 - 10:12:00 AM

“Let’s you and him fight!”

That’s the signature line of Popeye the Sailor Man’s buddy Wimpy, ever eager to stir things up in the ‘30s cartoons. Wimpy seems to have been the role model for those CNN newsies who tried to spice things up in this week’s Democratic presidential debates. I can’t remember their individual names, since I seldom watch CNN or any other TV “news”, but let’s just say one was a mutton-dressed-as-lamb woman with bleached and flattened hair, one was a pasty white guy with serious horn rims, and one was a kinda black guy, but you know, not too black. They could have been interchanged with a dozen others of similar description, but all were all carefully scripted by CNN’s Wimpy-on-staff to turn a civil discussion into a Real Debate.

Their MSNBC equivalents who asked the questions in the June shows (also inaccurately called debates) were milder, with even Rachel Maddow toned down for the occasion. There were complaints that those were dull (and they were). The candidates themselves provided whatever sparks flew, with Berkeley’s own Kamala Harris lighting a small fire under Joe Biden. (Yes, I know she was born in Oakland, but I bet that’s just because Kaiser’s there, not because her mother lived there.) 

I watched those June shows in Santa Cruz. The first was at the home of politically-minded people, at an event organized online by the Warren campaign, with some guests invited by the official organization and others friends and allies of the hosts. The second was held by the Bernie crowd at a pizza/sports bar. Both were followed by spirited discussion of issues raised by the candidates, more spirited than the on-camera exchanges by the stars. 

As someone who’s vacillated between advocacy and journalism, I understand CNN’s impulse to turn the second round into a fight, since the first ones were so tepid. In almost all contemporary media, everything from the online Atlantic Magazine to newsish local sites, if it bleeds it leads. That’s always been true of the print tabloids, but the tabloid style manual seems to have been adopted for most venues, especially the ones where truthiness prevails. 

On this week’s Dem shows, just about every question by the interlocutors was what’s called in the law a leading question, like a bit of red meat tossed in front of dogs to see if they will bite. Not all leading questions are illegitimate, but the overall effect on CNN was to create more dissention than actually exists among the candidates if left to their own devices. 

Again I watched Part I at a viewing party sponsored by, but not limited to, the Warren for President crowd. I organized this one myself in Berkeley, and in addition to those who registered with the campaign I also invited a random selection of my own contacts that I happen to encounter in the couple of days preceding the event, plus a few Planet readers who saw a last minute notice here. For July Part II, I joined a few friends in someone’s living room. 

This being the extended Bay Area Bubble, the reactions of all these audience members, at least a couple of hundred all together, were favorable to most of the candidates. I would be astounded if anyone at any of the four gatherings would reject Warren, Sanders, Booker, Harris, Castro or Mayor Pete as the candidate of the Democratic Party in 2020. Some who had lived elsewhere mid-continent expressed sympathy for Joe Biden, but all snickered at Devany. 

The rest of the candidates are hard to remember, but if by some act of god they got the nomination, they’d probably get these votes too. Yes, OMG, Marianne Williamson, who seems to have a warm heart if a weak head. Even Andrew Yang, who is as he says the opposite of you –know-who as an Asian who loves math. He seems to have a good head as well as a warm heart.  

Despite the best efforts of the CNN producers, policy differences among these candidates are vanishingly small. Everyone now endorses offering some form of government-supported health care to all, which as recently as 15 years ago would have been unimaginable.  

The exact role of private insurers in the mix will surely be settled in Congress by negotiation, not dictated by a president with a magic wand or (per the current incumbent) by executive order. All of the bumper sticker slogans (Single Payer, Medicare for All, Socialized Medicine….) are meaningless without details, and the details are sure to converge. 

The other topic on which the video newsies tried to gin up some controversy is the question of how unauthorized border crossing should be treated in the legal system. The only real dividing line among the candidates is who understands the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony and how this distinction plays out in enforcement at the border.  

Not one single Democratic candidate is down with using the chosen code section to separate migrant children from their family members, and certainly not to lock them in cages. There’s no substantial issue here. 

This week’s poster boy for sloppy newsies is Nicolas Kristof in the New York Times, who really should know better. From his Thursday column on the op-ed page: 

I worry that telling more than 150 million Americans that they will soon lose their private medical insurance could turn health care, which should be a winner for Democrats, into a winner for Republicans. 

Yes, and that’s why you shouldn’t do it.  

There are a dozen ways that government-paid health care and private insurance can co-exist, as you—and all the candidates—can learn from Paul Krugman in your very own paper. Just because some contenders aren’t clear on the concept, don’t muddy the waters yourself. 


Likewise, it seems to me reasonable that if we want a secure border, it should remain a misdemeanor to cross without permission — just as it’s a misdemeanor to trespass on private property. Warren’s drive to decriminalize border crossings would play into President Trump’s false criticism that Democrats want open borders. 

No one is saying it should not be a misdemeanor. But it is not a misdemeanor now. What Julian Castro and his allies are saying is that it should no longer remain a felony. If you’re writing about this stuff, you should really know the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor, between criminal and civil offenses. Decriminalization—changing from felony to misdemeanor—does not equal open borders, and newsies should be able to explain that. 

When are editors when NYT columnists need them? 

The Democratic Party (whoever that might be) should never have turned these important “debates”, which should actually be called panel discussions, over to commercial networks. They are creating controversy where none exists as a way of boosting ratings and selling ads. 

Besides the offensive questions, the way the CNN people truncated the closing sentences of the more literate candidates was very annoying. Steven Colbert, one of our smarter political commentators, did a good riff on this on Tuesday night after the show with clips of speakers being cut off by questioners mid-thought. There’s just no way that a serious issue can be tackled intelligently in one minute. (Are you listening, Mayor Arreguin?) 

We’ve seen enough of bogus controversies created by the reality TV crowd. The country would be well-served if the DNC took back their candidates forthwith and turned them over to non-profit non-commercial producers.  

PBS or NPR might be able to do it, though they also are tempted by ratings wars and have too many thinly disguised corporate commercials for their “sponsors”. Maybe the BBC, with no dog in the race, could put on a better program? Or our Canadian neighbors, whose public radio news is leisurely and thoughtful?  

Or even C-Span, which usually just points the cameras and lets ‘em roll. In this set, several of them have already looked pretty darn good on camera in the Senate or House. 

Candidates worthy of consideration should be able to state their positions without interpretation by the corporate media. If serious candidates were allocated a couple of free hours on the “air waves”, video or online, we might see some genuine debates for a change, instead of contests which are about as fair as professional wrestling matches.