Debates on broadcast TV are important, but is Katie Couric the best choice?
Originally published on BuzzFlash.com on Tue, 04/08/2008 – 10:10am
Just when you thought it was safe to watch TV and not see a debate, they’re back.
ABC is scheduling a debate in Philadelphia on April 16. And there are negotiations for a debate on CBS in North Carolina on April 27. Hillary Clinton has agreed to that date; the Obama team hasn’t responded yet. The CBS debated was scheduled for April 19, but that is the first night of Passover, so they wisely changed that date.
If you are asking why the Obama camp would be reluctant to accept the date, well… the previous date was before the Pennsylvania primary. After all, if Obama wins the primary, the race is pretty much over. And why have a debate if the race is over?
Now, if you are on the Clinton side of the glass, you figure even if Obama wins Pennsylvania, your candidate isn’t going to leave, so why not have a debate.
CBS’ alternative date is April 27, to get past Passover and to offer a 90-minute debate following the highly rated “60 Minutes” program.
The exciting part of these debates is that the Obama/Clinton battle returns to broadcast TV. As I have previously written, I was appalled at how few debates were on broadcast TV, especially with a writers strike.
And ABC deserves credit since it is the only network to broadcast a debate over-the-air, the Saturday night debate from New Hampshire all the way back on January 5 (can you remember back that far?). ABC will show the April 16 debate for 8 p.m. Eastern, but will tape-delay it for West Coast viewers.
And while NBC, the last-place network, hasn’t carried any debates over its network, its cable station, MSNBC, has hosted a number of debates. When your ratings stink, and a lot of your investment is in reality shows, a debate or two might actually get better ratings.
The CW, a network that doesn’t get mentioned too often, could have risen up to take a stand, especially since its demographics are young people who are excited about this process. But the CW doesn’t have much of a setup of any kind, much less a news division.
So that leaves CBS. Why has CBS been on the sidelines? Well, it has had some bad luck. CBS had a Democratic Party debate in Los Angeles. However, at the time, the network was negotiating with its news writers in New York, Washington, Chicago, and Los Angeles (completely separate from the Writers Guild strike). The possibility of picket lines from the Writers Guild led the DNC to cancel the December 10 debate. The other issue was that the debate was going to be at CBS Television City, where striking writers were already picketing.
CBS is desperate to get a debate for one main reason: to showcase its struggling anchor Katie Couric. Couric was reportedly host this North Carolina debate with Bob Schieffer, former Evening News anchor and current “Face the Nation” host.
CBS News isn’t in the best shape these days. The network has laid off a number of local TV reporters and anchors. Even though CBS is the prime-time winner, the news department doesn’t get to share in that apparently.
But the setup CBS wanted for the debate was questionable, and it had everything to do with doing a debate as cheap as possible. From The New York Observer:
“Shortly thereafter, during the summer of 2007, CBS News informed the DNC that they wanted to hold the debate inside a studio at the CBS Television City in Los Angeles and-notably-without a live audience.
“According to several sources, that idea didn’t sit well with the DNC. Holding the debate in a closed studio rather than in front of a live audience is seen by those in the business as a classic cost-saving gambit-and one (collateral damage!) that would deny Democratic diehards and donors the opportunity to show up and get crazy for their candidates. The plan was also at odds with the terms already hammered out with the Democratic candidates. Negotiations sputtered. According to sources, at several points over the summer, the debate appeared on the brink of death.”
So it would be good to have a debate on CBS, especially after “60 Minutes.” But I’m not sure how good a debate it can be when the network in question is a) trying to do this on the cheap, and b) doing it with an anchor who has shown in the past to not have much knowledge of politics.
Yes, I speak of Katie Couric. She may have many strengths, but asking questions about politics isn’t one of them. Watching her lack of knowledge on Election Night 2006 was embarrassing. Her interview with Hillary Clinton included questions about her reputation (“Someone told me your nickname in school was Miss Frigidaire. Is that true?”) with the boys in high school.
While we have had 20 debates, and only one on broadcast TV, we haven’t had that many substantial questions in the process. Since Couric’s style isn’t to ask those kind of questions when she has had the chance, she isn’t the best person to host a debate, even if she is CBS’s star at $15 million a year.
And this isn’t about Couric’s gender: as I have noted before, Lesley Stahl, who works at CBS News, would be a better pick if gender was crucial. And Bob Schieffer would be a solid pick as well. Democracy needs to be more than “let’s give Katie a chance.” She has had her chances to show off her political knowledge and expertise, and she has neither.
We need debates on broadcast TV, but we need good, informative ones.