The News Tip: Don't Get Distracted In Debates Presidential debates can be full of theatrics. It's up to the moderator to keep the debate on track and to get their questions answered.
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The News Tip: Don't Get Distracted In Debates

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The News Tip: Don't Get Distracted In Debates

The News Tip: Don't Get Distracted In Debates

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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David had a close eye on last week's Republican debate and joins us with the News Tip. Welcome, David.


CORNISH: David, what is the News Tip for this week?

FOLKENFLIK: Today's News Tip is don't get distracted. Think about these political debates were talking about. There's so much theatricality, so much of a spectacle there - fun to be diverted by a great one-liner and yet people often, I think, forget the mission, the point of the enterprise.

CORNISH: And you say it's theatrical - I would say, I mean, it is theater. When I think back to the June debate, with the either/or questions that they presented to the Republican candidates...

JOHN KING: Leno or Conan? Elvis or Johnny Cash? BlackBerry or iPhone?

RICK SANTORUM: Probably Leno, but I don't watch either.

KING: Coke or Pepsi?


KING: Governor Romney, to you now. Imagine you're getting to the barbecue joint...

CORNISH: I've got "Christmas With Elvis" on my iPod.

KING: Spicy or mild?

MITT ROMNEY: Oh, spicy.


KING: Mr. Cain, deep dish or thin crust?

CORNISH: Right? I mean, it seems like essentially...

FOLKENFLIK: Boxers or briefs?



FOLKENFLIK: Red or yellow?

CORNISH: I know that they're trying to get at some of the personalities. But it seems like, you know, a distraction.

FOLKENFLIK: I sat down with a recent moderator, Brian Williams of NBC. He offered this insight into how he thinks about questions.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Sometimes you're going to have to ask a question which is worded in a way, constructed in a very specific way - like Legos - for a reason. Because it's designed to shut off areas of escape for candidates and elicit a certain answer. And, you know, it may not always sound or come off well.

FOLKENFLIK: So there, Brian Williams is acknowledging, look, his role isn't to be popular. His role is to help you out at home. And, you know, there are a lot of feints, a lot of tactics being used by candidates to try to avoid questions that they don't want to deal with.

CORNISH: Right. I mean essentially the moderator can press a candidate and then be punished for it by the candidate.

FOLKENFLIK: Right. And we just saw a couple examples of that. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich went on the warpath against Chris Wallace of Fox News when he asked a question he didn't want to deal with. And he did it again more recently with Politico's John Harris.


JOHN HARRIS: Speaker Gingrich, it sounds like we got a genuine philosophical disagreement. In Massachusetts, a mandate, almost no one uninsured. In Texas, a more limited approach, about a quarter uninsured. Who's got the better end of this argument?

NEWT GINGRICH: Well, I'm frankly not interested in your effort to get Republicans fighting each other.


FOLKENFLIK: And yet, you know, people in the crowd who were left wanting, not really knowing where Gingrich came down. Perfectly good question, kind of got sidestepped.

CORNISH: So, given what Brian William says, how does a moderator, I guess, press in - really get an answer and not have it end up being all about them?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think a certain kind of persistence is needed. As he suggested, it's a question of how you frame things. But it's a question of also not letting things go by the wayside. CNN's Wolf Blitzer has a reputation among some of his peers of doing that from time to time - letting things go by. And yet, he did a pretty strong job the other night when he moderated a debate for CNN.

WOLF BLITZER: Governor Romney, you know Governor Perry, as governor of Texas...


BLITZER: ...created more jobs in Texas than any other state.

ROMNEY: Terrific state, no question about that. It's some wonderful things that Texas has going for it that the nation could learn from. Zero income tax...

FOLKENFLIK: And here, Romney talks charmingly without answering the question at all.

ROMNEY: We are an energy-rich nation. We're living like an energy-poor nation. We've gone from a payphone world to a Smartphone world. People won't invest here unless they have confidence here.

BLITZER: So - so...

ROMNEY: And that's what I'll do.

BLITZER: Just to get back to the question, so does Governor Perry deserve any credit for all those jobs that were created in Texas?

ROMNEY: Oh, sure. Oh, sure.

BLITZER: Go ahead and tell him how much credit he deserves.


FOLKENFLIK: One of the things Brian Williams said was, hey, remember, as long as you're persisting a bit, you're showing viewers that if a candidate is not answering the question, that's the choice that he or she has made. And I think that's a useful insight, as well.

CORNISH: don't get distracted.

CORNISH: NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thanks so much for speaking with us.


CORNISH: And if you have a news tip you'd like to offer, share it with us through our website, You'll find a link to our Facebook page where you can join the discussion.

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