clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

CNN’s debate draft special shows cable news has learned nothing from 2016

The Draw was a dispiriting delve into how cable news might cover election 2020.

CNN hypes potential debate matchups on The Draw.
CNN turned its presidential debate draft special into a very boring circus.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for July 14 through 20 is The Draw,” the July 18 edition of CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, in which the lineups for the upcoming Democratic presidential debates were set.

How should 24-hour news networks, which have so much time to fill, cover the 2020 presidential election — an event where even the first few primaries are still months away?

I am not asking a particularly original question here. One could suggest any number of answers, ranging from deep dives into the various candidates’ policy proposals to an examination of how the many many Democrats running for president might position themselves opposite Donald Trump.

One could even suggest they shouldn’t lavish so much time on something that is still so far in the future.

But we all know better than that. The structure of America’s presidential elections — a huge field of candidates gradually winnowing itself down to two, in a high-stakes competition where everything is on the line — makes for inherently good television, the ultimate serialized drama or reality show. And in the reality TV era, 24-hour news has only further embraced that TV-friendly structure. This was probably inevitable.

With that said, I think I have an answer for the question of how 24-hour news networks should cover the 2020 presidential election.

It’s “not like this.”

CNN’s live draw to set the next presidential debate lineups was a ridiculously bombastic attempt to make bingo seem exciting

At its core, The Draw — a special edition of Anderson Cooper 360 where CNN set the lineups for the Democratic primary debates coming up on July 30 and 31 — was a standard lottery.

The names of various candidates were tossed into one giant box, while the two dates were tossed into another. Then someone from CNN would draw a name followed by a date — Beto O’Rourke! July 30! — and a little headshot of O’Rourke would appear in the July 30 lineup at the bottom of the screen. All the while, pulse-pounding music straight out of the early rounds of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire throbbed.

So, yes, it felt like a lottery, or maybe even a high-stakes game of bingo. (“Andrew Yang! July 31!” cries the bingo caller, and dozens of Americans steadfastly fill out their cards to see if they’ve won a prize.) But at least a lottery or a game of bingo presents the illusion that I, the player, might win something. Watching The Draw, all I won was a slowly deflating sense that anything of consequence might happen.

Perhaps a more accurate description of whatever CNN was up to here would be “a political version of a professional sports draft.” The key difference being that in a sports draft, there’s an actual element of strategy involved. I might not have any influence over what my favorite team does, but when the team chooses its next player, I get a sense of what they’re trying to do in the upcoming season.

And to a certain degree, the “slate of candidates is divvied up between the two nights, then a panel of pundits offers some analysis” structure of The Draw bears some broad similarities to coverage of the NFL or NBA drafts. But because political candidates aren’t in control of their debate destiny in the same way that a team owner can pick their favorite player to sign, there’s next to no way for those candidates to strategize or think about what to do at the debate in advance of the “draft” because they’re literally just learning who they’ll be up against as the audience is. Thus, viewers don’t learn anything about the candidates, their policies, or their strategies from this event. They can’t even really speculate about those qualities. It’s all hype.

With the heavy random chance element of The Draw, there was no real way for CNN’s commentators to even guess at the candidates’ respective campaign strategies for the upcoming debate, which meant the special wasn’t particularly interesting as horse race coverage either. CNN’s slate of pundits could speculate as to whether South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg might be more inclined to position himself as a moderate or a progressive when sharing the stage with both the most notable moderate candidates (former Maryland Representative John Delaney and former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper) and progressive candidates (Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders), but there was really no way to wring drama out of the matchup beyond the famous GIF of the little girl saying “Why don’t we have both?”

So The Draw was ridiculously boring to watch and fatuously vapid as well. I’m all for TV networks experimenting with their election coverage — goodness knows 24-hour news channels could use a shakeup — but drawing names out of a hat (while making sure to use multiple camera angles to prove there’s no duplicity going on) will never make for riveting TV, no matter how much you try to puff it up with dramatic music.

So that’s my isolated review of The Draw both as television and as a news event. But the more I watched it, the more the special’s overlap with game shows and reality TV started to get to me, in terms of what it might signal for the future. If this is CNN’s idea of how to cover an election — and I’m not saying it is, not yet — then maybe we’re all doomed.

CNN is making the early presidential race feel extraordinarily consequential and essentially meaningless at the same time

CNN selects the name of Elizabeth Warren.
It’s Elizabeth Warren!

As I explained above, the stakes of The Draw lay almost entirely with the candidates, not with viewers. But The Draw kept trying to make it seem like California Senator Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden facing off again will have an immense impact not just on the presidential campaign but also on the lives of Americans, when the odds seem very low that a second confrontation between the two will somehow determine who wins in 2020.

It’s an established practice of 24-hour cable news to make it seem like the thing that’s happening now is not only the most important thing to ever have happened, but also the most consequential thing to ever have happened, that you are watching history unfold in real time. But The Draw took this notion to ridiculous lengths, pretending that viewers getting to witness this draft (and have it stretched out to over an hour!) would prove something about CNN’s efforts to promote fairness, rather than to gin up spectacle where there was none.

It also underlined the approach CNN takes to pretty much everything as the 2020 campaign heats up. The network treats everything as soap opera, as an endless clash between personalities where you have to keep tuning in to see what happens next. I’m not saying anything new when I point out the similarities between CNN’s coverage style and reality TV, but in the wake of the 2016 campaign, it’s all the more disappointing to realize that the network is apparently intent on running this approach into the ground.

In 2015, after an early Republican debate in which Donald Trump had a run-in with Fox News contributor Megyn Kelly, I wrote about the ways that reality TV had taken over political coverage — but also at just how good Trump was at dominating in that space.

We have a tendency to write off reality TV in America as lowest-common-denominator entertainment, because a lot of it is. But the specific storytelling forms and cinematic tricks of reality have more or less become central parts of our current cultural vernacular. Is it any wonder they’ve entered politics as well?

When people talk about Trump as a reality TV personality, then, they’re trying to ride him down, to suggest he’s unserious or simply there for entertainment value. And all of that may well be true.

But this ignores that reality TV is really popular, and Trump is really good at being on reality TV. And, more specifically, the skills he learned on reality TV make him better equipped to handle tough challenges and big pushback than other candidates who’ve gotten in similar hot water.

By and large, the pattern of reality TV tropes popping up in politics has been consistent ever since Trump launched his political career. Trump is so good at being on reality TV that the more cable news trends toward covering politics as if it’s a reality show — toward stringing together a long series of incidents that sort of add up to a story but mostly just capture the trappings of something real, rather than a real thing itself — the more he can’t help but seem like the only candidate who’s not a fish flopping about on the shore and gasping for air.

What The Draw shows is that CNN is fundamentally unaware of this shift, or at least unconcerned about it. If it’s entertaining and if it might draw viewership, then it’s fine, no matter how empty or vacuous it is as programming, as news, or as policy coverage.

The Draw was bad television, sure, but worse than that, it seemed to hint at about how CNN views its audience — as easily distractible, unlikely to have their lives materially affected by the 2020 election, and uninterested in anything other than raw competition and conflict. The more it inflates the stakes for everything, the more anything ceases to have stakes for its viewers. The network wields influence and directs the national conversation, and with that power, it stages a game of bingo. Politics and policy and matters of life and death — at the end of the day, on CNN, it’s all part of the game.