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De-Debating

October 31, 2014

We’ve written before about how much we like Liz Benjamin. She’s a very good reporter and a sincere and genuine person. She’s not a phony, like so many on TV.

That said, we have to be somewhat critical of her handling of the Schneiderman-Cahill debate last night. She simply wasn’t in control.

In her defense, it was an impossible task. Neither man respected the rules of the debate. Neither showed any inclination toward common courtesy.  As a result, there were long periods in the debate that were simply unintelligible. That’s because the two men were talking over each other.

Liz tried without success to intervene. Halfway through, she became exasperated and awkwardly shifted to a so-called “lightning round” in which the candidates were supposed to answer yes or no to her questions. This was meant to “inject some levity” into the debate, but her questions were silly, and she made the segment worse by laughing and expressing incredulity at their answers.

Again, to be fair to Liz, this job is not easy. You want to cut through the rehearsed answers of the candidates, but you don’t want to go off on tangents. You want to get as many questions in as possible, but you don’t want to be superficial. You want the candidates to engage each other, but you can’t have a free-for-all.  You want to follow up on things, but you don’t want to do the candidates’ work for them.

On this last matter, there was an absolutely bizarre moment when Cahill pointed out that Schneiderman allows a political consultant to represent his office, his campaign and also outside business interests.

Schneiderman responded by saying that the arrangement with the individual was appropriate. He named the individual,  Jennifer Cunningham, in a way that was completely matter of fact.

Stunningly, neither Cahill nor Liz nor the reporters on the panel followed up. Nobody pointed out that the Ms. Cunningham is Mr. Schneiderman’s ex-wife and one of the most powerful woman in politics in New York. Nobody asked whether, at a minimum, there was an appearance problem.

Liz and the reporters on the panel probably thought that they shouldn’t do Cahill’s work for him. It’s just that at other points in the debate, they did attempt to ask pointed follow up questions. So, why not at that moment?

The panel of reporters didn’t really distinguish themselves last night. They read long and ponderous questions, the premise of which was often dubious. They did not protest when the candidates completely ignored their questions. In addition, it was surprising that Errol Louis and Bob McCarthy, two veteran reporters, did so little to help Liz control the debate.

In this regard, everyone involved here – Liz, Errol, Bob and Laura Nahmias – had to know that this debate had the potential for raucousness, but they all acted so surprised when it happened.

We thought we saw an opportunity for Liz to make a stand at a critical moment. It was when Cahill turned to Schneiderman in an angry and whiny way and said: “Will you let me finish? Will you stop interrupting me?”

There was a second of silence that we really wanted Liz to seize. We wanted her to say the following: “Gentleman, please, you both have been interrupting each other all night long. And you’ve been talking over each other throughout this debate. I’ve let it go in the interest of having a good exchange,  but it’s gone too far. I’m asking you now to please respect the process, respect the panel, the audience and me. At a minimum, will please allow each other to speak.”

Saying this might not have changed things, but it certainly would have been appropriate.

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