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Debate Review: How Did It Play Out As A Media Event?


Last night's Democratic presidential debate was both a public service and primetime programming entertainment, you might say. The CNN debate on Westwood One News was staged live from a Las Vegas casino. Pop star Sheryl Crow sang the national anthem. We've been talking about politics throughout the show. Now, let's talk about this debate as the media event it was with NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Good morning.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: OK, for the Democratic candidate seeking the nomination for president, this was the first chance to face off and to show off. And following two Republican debates that drew huge audiences, how do the debates compare?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, obviously a big night for Hillary Clinton and an important night for Bernie Sanders. But in some ways, the night was defined by the folks who weren't there. You had that video, almost a promotional one, from President Barack Obama, kind of like the father of Superman at the start of the movie, introducing the debate. The question of Joe Biden - would he come along, parachute in at the last minute? But really, the third vital figure not present who, in some ways, defined and informed the debate was Donald Trump, who had changed the electricity of the water for the Republican debates. And I thought Martin O'Malley, the former Maryland governor, smartly assessed and analyzed that in his concluding remarks towards the end of the night.


O'MALLEY: On this stage, you didn't hear anyone denigrate women. You didn't hear anyone make racist comments about new American immigrants. You didn't hear anyone speak ill of another American because of their religious belief.

FOLKENFLIK: And I really thought that what O'Malley was getting at was the way in which the very presence of Donald Trump led to a much more critical, a much more personalized, a much more slashing approach to the kinds of things that we call a debate, but actually are these forums in which candidates jointly appear. And the Democrats seemed to take a more wonkish approach at doing that by temperament and by design.

MONTAGNE: One thing, David - the Fox moderators got high praise in the first Republican debate for really challenging, quite toughly, the candidates. How did the CNN moderators do?

FOLKENFLIK: I thought Anderson Cooper and those who complemented him did pretty well over the course of the night, but particularly Cooper himself. This time around, you know, you saw the parties try to work the refs a little bit. In this case, the Democrats complained that they didn't have a partisan, as Hugh Hewitt, a conservative and Republican, had played a part in the CNN debate for Republicans.

MONTAGNE: You know, David, the candidates may have been measured, as you suggest, but there was quite a bit of flash in CNN's choice of venue. They could have done this debate at a university, but they chose a casino. What was the thinking behind that?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, there was certainly a lot of showbiz involved in the graphics and the presentation and the showiness to CNN. But, you know, give them credit. They're trying to drum up attention. If we give Donald Trump credit, as I think we should, in stirring up a lot more interest in the public in those early Republican debates, so too can you, in some ways, forgive CNN for trying to get people to watch the Democrats as well. But indeed, it was held at the casino of Steve Wynn, who's been a donor to some Democrats, but spent a lot of money on Republican causes over the years as well. And it was a pretty surprising venue, from my standpoint, for holding a Democratic debate.

MONTAGNE: Well, just finally, if there is a takeaway or was a theme of this debate, how would you put it?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, whether it's by temperament, inclination, convenience or merely political expedience, I think the Democrats coalesced around the idea that we're going to be the wonks. We're going to talk about substantive issues. We're going to talk about or at least sum up the kind of approaches that we would take, and we're not going to attack each other personally.

MONTAGNE: David, thank you much very.


MONTAGNE: That's NPR's media correspondent, David Folkenflik, on last night's Democratic debate. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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