02/01/2008 03:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Blitzer Blitz -- The Real TV Debate

Wolf Blitzer was the big loser in CNN's recent Democratic debate twixt Clinton & Obama in Hollywood. It was clear that the two candidates decided not to replay their South Carolina squabble or duplicate the cross-talking Romney-McCain slap-back from the previous night's GOP debate. But Blitzer was having no part of civilized talk. No. Throughout the evening, he persistently tried to deliver the brawl, battle, smackdown, and fight he, and CNN, promoted during the run-up to the event. The candidates were having none of it. At one point, an audience member actually called out "Nice try, Wolf' during one of his attempts to pump up things. Hillary echoed the words. But Blitzer wouldn't let go and kept it up. Now, every reporter understands the concept of friction in a news story. Without friction -- who's up, who's down, who's in, who's out, -- without friction it just isn't a 'good story.' Friction makes the world go 'round since the beginning of recorded history. Nation against nation, West versus East, capitalism-Communism, nature-nurture, religion-science, North-South, Sunni-Shia, Red States-Blue States. Friction, as a concept, is embedded in news reporting. But broadcast news, in particular, tends to be binary in language: 0 or 1, yes or no, right or-wrong. Nuance and subtlety is not broadcast news' strongest suit -- which is another way of explaining the Blitzer Blitz to generate a brawl that just wasn't there. It would seem CNN, and others, underestimate their audience. They tend to favor the Jerry Springer approach to friction where folks actually pummel each with words and fists. They don't see friction as a give-and-take of ideas and issues. Clinton and Obama tried to do that. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of daylight between these two candidates' approaches to governing. Their debate agenda was to differentiate their positions without sounding like the Bickersons. CNN's agenda was to do the Bickersons.

The debate newsrooms around the country should be having is how to cover a presidential election without contributing to the fractious and coarsening that's now embedded in our public discourse. Charlie Rose, Jim Lehrer, Bill Moyers, Terry Gross, or any of the other fine broadcast newsies out there get it. They understand there's enough natural friction during an election without the broadcast media juicing it up with its steroidal approach.