Debates, not issues, are the newsmakers

Mon Dec 3, 2007 6:57am EST
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By Paul J. Gough - Analysis

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Ever notice that no matter how much news is made among the candidates this primary season, the debate itself tends to take center stage?

These men and one woman are vying to become leader of the free world, and the headline last week was that CNN was duped by a Clinton plant at the GOP-YouTube debate. CNN already had gotten into trouble in November when it failed to disclose that analyst James Carville was a financial supporter of the Clinton campaign.

Last week, the Democratic National Committee canceled a debate planned for Los Angeles and to be moderated by "CBS Evening News" anchor Katie Couric. Although it was a casualty of the writers strike, the cancellation robbed CBS of the chance to get in on the debates that have been put on by all of its rivals.

To a lesser extent, MSNBC and Fox News Channel also have been the subject of debate-related stories that have nothing to do with the issues. MSNBC's Tim Russert was criticized for his questioning of Clinton in the October 30 debate. And Fox News Channel had its own scrap this year with the Democratic candidates when all it wanted to do was sponsor a debate.

"For almost all of these things, the postdebate stories have been dominated by sidebars," says Tobe Berkowitz, dean of Boston University's College of Communication.

CNN wanted to talk about its record ratings for its Democratic debate November 15 in Las Vegas and its YouTube debate Wednesday. But it was hard to crow when it spent so much time on the defensive.

Berkowitz says he hasn't been impressed with CNN's debate telecasts, starting with bringing the candidates onstage like what he calls a game-show format.

"It's been show business. It's been a disservice -- how many gimmicks we can pile into what should be the serious business of democracy," he says.   Continued...

<p>Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) (R) gestures as Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) listens at the CNN/Nevada Democratic Party debate in at the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV) in Las Vegas, Nevada November 15, 2007. REUTERS/Steve Marcus</p>